The World Health Organization meets to decide whether the spread of monkeypox outside Africa should be declared a global emergency.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters: “The monkeypox outbreak is unusual and worrying.
“For that reason, I have decided to convene the Emergency Committee next week under International Health Regulations [June 23]to assess whether this outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.”
It’s fair to say that the monkeypox story is already a concern — nay, fear — for a pandemic-weary world.
That concern will be compounded by news reports that a declaration of a global emergency is “the highest alarm the UN agency can sound”.
While it’s true that the only other illnesses that triggered this alarm were swine flu, polio, Ebola, Zika, and of course, COVID-19, keep this in mind:
Since May 13, about 1,600 cases have been reported in non-African countries – with no deaths.
There is no evidence that we are dealing with a COVID-style catastrophe.
As Peter Collignon, professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University, told The Guardian, there is no cause for alarm because monkeypox is “not highly transmissible from person to person”.
Three Australians have been infected with the virus in the past month. It doesn’t seem to have spread from them.
What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a very different virus from SARS-CoV-2. It is a less deadly relative of the smallpox virus.
Although smallpox has been limited to humans, monkeypox occurs in animals, such as monkeys and rodents — and can be spread to a person through a bite.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once a person is infected, the virus is “spread to other people through direct contact with bodily fluids or sores on the body of someone who has monkeypox — or through direct contact with materials containing touched bodily fluids or sores, such as clothing or bedding”.
It can also spread through respiratory secretions when people have close personal contact.
However, monkeypox is not known to linger in the air and not be transmitted during short periods of shared airspace.
It is well known that many of these new infections have occurred in gay and bisexual men, raising concerns that an AIDS-style stigma is resurfacing.
These infections have also raised concerns that monkeypox can be sexually transmitted through semen and vaginal fluids. This has yet to be confirmed.
The six stages of a monkeypox rash.
What are the symptoms?
According to the WHO, monkeypox symptoms typically include fever, severe headache, muscle aches, back pain, low energy, swollen lymph nodes, and skin rashes or lesions.
The rash usually begins within one to three days of the onset of a fever.
Lesions may be flat or slightly raised, filled with clear or yellowish fluid, then crust over, dry up, and fall off.
The rash tends to focus on the face, palms, and soles. They can also be found in the mouth, genitals, and eyes. The number of lesions in one person can vary from a few to several thousand.
Symptoms usually last between two and four weeks and resolve independently without treatment.
Why is it called monkeypox?
The virus is called monkeypox because researchers discovered it in laboratory monkeys in 1958.
The WHO says it is working on a new name for monkeypox.
Last week, more than 30 scientists signed a letter saying there was an “urgent need for a non-discriminatory and non-stigmatizing” name for the virus and the disease.
The urgency appears to be related to the virus breaking out of Africa after five decades of infections.
Why has it broken out now?
Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at Kirby Institute, has published research suggesting two reasons for the increase and spread of infections:
“We hypothesized two main mechanisms to explain this resurgence after 40 years of no reported cases.
“First, residents (in West Africa) have experienced increased exposure and interaction with forest animals, driven by deforestation, armed conflict, and population migration.
“Second, herd immunity from the universal smallpox vaccination programs that have since been discontinued in the 1970s has declined over time.”
The smallpox vaccine is effective against monkeypox.
The European Union plans to buy about 110,000 doses of vaccine. In recent weeks, there have been about 900 infections in Europe.
Mass vaccination against monkeypox is unnecessary but recommended for certain risk groups. Photo: Getty
Should everyone be vaccinated?
The WHO advises mass vaccination is “not currently required nor recommended for monkeypox”.
Vaccination should be limited to:
Case contacts, ideally within four days of first exposure, to prevent the disease’s onset. Pre-exposure prophylaxis is recommended for health professionals at risk and laboratory personnel working with orthodox viruses (viruses such as monkeypox and smallpox. Clinical laboratory personnel performing diagnostic tests for monkeypox and others that may be at risk under national policy.
The WHO says vaccination programs should be supported by thorough surveillance, contact tracing, and a vigorous information campaign.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends people infected with monkeypox “wear a mask if they must be around others in their home if close, personal contact is likely.”
The CDC advises that a patient with suspected or confirmed monkeypox infection in a healthcare setting should be placed in a single room; special air treatment is not required.
All procedures “likely to spread oral secretions (such as intubation and extubation) should be performed in an airborne infection isolation room”.