A senior UK health official says, ‘We are continuing to identify additional monkeypox cases in England through our extensive surveillance and contact tracing networks.’
The number of confirmed cases of monkeypox in the UK has risen to 71, with 14 new infections discovered in England.
According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), despite the discovery of new cases, the risk to the general population remains low – though scientists are concerned about the virus spreading in animals and pets, which could serve as a permanent reservoir for the viral infection.
There have been no reports of cases in Wales or Northern Ireland so far. One infection was discovered in Scotland, and 70 were reported in England.
The UKHSA reports that a significant proportion of the total cases thus far have been among gay and bisexual people, and members of these groups should be on the lookout for new rashes or lesions that appear on any part of their body.
“We are continuing to identify additional monkeypox cases in England quickly thanks to our extensive monitoring and contact searching networks, our watchful NHS services, and people reporting symptoms,” said Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at UKHSA.
Those who suspect they have symptoms should avoid contact with others and call 111 or their local sexual health service “as soon as possible.”
People who have been infected are being offered a vaccine used to prevent smallpox, which is caused by a similar virus.
Health care workers, sexual partners, and housemates are all included in this ring vaccination strategy. Because the virus has a long incubation period and symptoms can appear weeks later, high-risk contacts should stay at home for three weeks.
In nearly 20 countries where monkeypox is not endemic, primarily in Europe, more than 130 confirmed or suspected infections have been detected.
The sudden increase in cases was described as “atypical” by the World Health Organization, but the outbreak remained “containable” and limited. According to the agency, the fact that cases have been reported in so many different countries suggests that the infection has been quietly spreading for some time.
Monkeypox is most common in West Africa, and the virus is difficult to spread between humans. In most cases, the illness is mild, and those infected with the virus recover in a matter of weeks.
Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, headache, backache, chills, swollen lymph nodes, and exhaustion. A rash on the face may develop and spread to other parts of the body, including the genitals.
The first case found in the UK was in a person who had recently returned from Nigeria, but subsequent cases have nothing to do with travel.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before, with such a large number of cases” in so many countries, said Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar.
On Monday, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there had previously been small outbreaks, with cases documented in the UK, but that “this is different, something has changed,” and that superspreader event could be to blame.
“The virus could have changed,” Sir Jeremy speculated. “I believe that the niche that this virus now occupies has allowed for some superspreader events, and that those who took part in those have then travelled to other parts of the world and brought the infection with them.”
According to a senior WHO official, the case outbreak is a “random event” that could be explained by two recent mass events in Europe.
Sexual transmission – and the close contact that it brings – is the leading theory for the disease’s spread, according to Dr. David Heymann, former head of WHO’s emergencies department.
“We know that monkeypox can spread through close contact with the lesions of infected people, and it appears that sexual contact has now amplified that transmission,” Dr. Heymann said.
This is a significant departure from the disease’s typical spread pattern in central and western Africa, where people are infected primarily by animals such as wild rodents and primates and outbreaks do not cross borders.
Despite the fact that the disease can be fatal in up to 10% of cases, no deaths have been reported among current cases.
The European Centre for Disease Control warned that “managing exposed pets and preventing disease transmission to wildlife” was critical as health officials raced to understand and contain the ongoing outbreak.
The agency stated, “There is a risk that the disease will become endemic in Europe if human-to-animal transmission occurs and the virus spreads in an animal population.”
Scientists have stated that it will be difficult to determine whether the recent spread of monkeypox across Europe is due to sex or close contact related to sex.
“Sexual activity, by definition, involves intimate contact,” said Mike Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London.
The French Ministry of Health recommended a targeted vaccination campaign to combat the monkeypox outbreak on Tuesday, and Moderna is testing potential vaccines against the disease.