Those include exactly how it spreads and whether the suspension of mass smallpox immunization decades ago could somehow speed up its transmission.
In a public hearing on Monday, WHO’s Dr Rosamund Lewis said it is not known whether monkeypox is transmitted through sex or just through close contact between people who engage in sexual activity, and described the threat to the general population as “low.” .
But she said it was critical to emphasize that the vast majority of cases seen in dozens of countries worldwide were in men who have sex with men so that scientists can study the problem further and for those at risk with caution. to be.
“It’s very important to describe this because it appears to be an increase in a mode of transmission that may have been underrecognized in the past,” said Lewis, WHO’s technical lead on monkeypox.
“Right now we are not concerned about a global pandemic,” she said.
“We are concerned that individuals could acquire this infection from high-risk exposure if they do not have the information they need to protect themselves.”
She warned that everyone is at potential risk for the disease, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Other experts have pointed out that it may be accidental that the disease was first picked up in gay and bisexual men, and said it could quickly spread to other groups if left unchecked.
Monkeypox is known to spread when there is close physical contact with an infected person or their clothing or bedding.
To date, the WHO said 23 countries that have not had monkey pox before have now reported more than 250 cases.
Lewis cautioned that among the current cases there was a greater percentage of people with fewer lesions that are more concentrated in the genital area and are sometimes nearly impossible to see.
“You can have these lesions for two to four weeks (and) they may not be visible to others, but you can still be contagious,” she said.
That marks a significant departure from the typical distribution pattern of the disease in Central and West Africa, where humans are primarily infected by animals such as wild rodents and primates, and epidemics have not crossed borders.
Scientists have not yet determined whether the monkeypox outbreak in rich countries can be traced to Africa, but the disease continues to sicken people on the continent.
On Monday, Nigerian authorities confirmed the first monkey pox death this year, along with six more cases. The WHO said that typically thousands of cases were reported each year from Nigeria and Congo.
Most monkeypox patients only experience fever, body aches, chills and fatigue.
People with more serious illness may develop skin rashes and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body. No deaths have been reported in the current outbreak outside of Africa.
Lewis of the WHO also said that while previous cases of monkeypox in Central and West Africa had been relatively controlled, it was not clear whether people could spread monkeypox without symptoms or whether the disease could be airborne, such as measles or COVID-19.
Monkeypox is related to smallpox, for which vaccines are also protective against monkeypox, but have milder symptoms.
After smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, countries suspended their mass vaccination programs, a move some experts believe may help the spread of monkeypox as there is now little widespread immunity to related diseases.
Lewis said it would be “unfortunate” if Monkeypox were able to exploit “the immunity gap” left by smallpox 40 years ago, and said there was still a chance to stop the outbreak so monkeypox wouldn’t spread. anchoring in new regions.
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