Global health officials have sounded the alarm over rising cases in Europe and elsewhere of monkeypox, a type of viral infection more common to west and central Africa.
Around 80 monkeypox cases have been confirmed and an additional 50 are under investigation in 11 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
How dangerous is it?
The risk to the general public is low at this time, a US public health official told reporters at a briefing. The first case of monkeypox this year in the United States was confirmed on Wednesday by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The infected man had recently traveled to Canada.
On Sunday, US President Joe Biden said the monkeypox outbreak is something “everybody should be concerned about,” adding that US health officials are looking into possible treatments and vaccines.
Monkeypox is a virus that can cause symptoms including fever, aches and presents with a distinctive bumpy rash. It is related to smallpox, but is usually milder, particularly the West African strain of the virus that was identified in a U.S. case, which has a fatality rate of around 1%. Most people fully recover in two to four weeks.
The virus is not as easily transmitted as the SARS-CoV-2 virus that spurred the global COVID-19 pandemic. Experts believe the current monkeypox outbreak is being spread through close, intimate skin on skin contact with someone who has an active rash. That should make its spread easier to contain once infections are identified, experts said.
Many – but not all – of the people who have been diagnosed in the current monkeypox outbreak are men who have same sex, including cases in Spain linked to a sauna in the Madrid region.
Why are health experts concerned?
According to the WHO, the recent outbreaks reported are atypical as they are occurring in countries where the virus does not regularly circulate. Scientists are seeking to understand the origin of the current cases and whether anything about the virus has changed.
Most of the cases reported so far have been detected in the UK, Spain and Portugal. There have also been cases in Canada and Australia, and a single case of monkeypox was confirmed in Boston, with public health officials saying more cases are likely to turn up in the United States.
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How can people protect themselves?
The UK has begun to inoculate healthcare workers who may be at risk while caring for patients with the smallpox vaccine, which can also protect against monkeypox.
The US government says it has enough smallpox vaccine stored in its Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) to vaccinate the entire U.S. population.
There are antiviral drugs for smallpox that could also be used to treat monkeypox under certain circumstances, a spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Services have said in a statement.
Health officials say that people should avoid close personal contact with someone who has a rash illness or who is otherwise unwell. People who suspect they have monkeypox should isolate and seek medical care.