The World Health Organization is working on further guidance for countries on reducing the spread of monkeypox amid concerns that the number of cases could increase further in the coming months, a senior adviser to the United Nations agency said.
The WHO’s working theory based on the cases identified so far is that the outbreak is caused by sexual contact, according to David Heymann, chair of the WHO’s strategic and technical advisory group on infectious hazards with pandemic and epidemic potential.
He led a meeting on Friday about the outbreak.
Monkeypox is a contagious disease, usually mild and endemic to parts of West and Central Africa.
It is spread through close contact, meaning it can be relatively easily contained by measures such as self-isolation and hygiene once a new case has been identified.
According to scientists, the recent outbreak in countries where it is not endemic is highly unusual. Authorities in Israel and Switzerland reported their first confirmed case of monkeypox on Saturday.
Infections have been reported in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
More than 100 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported, most in Europe.
Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said experts will likely provide more guidance to countries in the coming days.
Health officials in several countries have warned that cases could rise further during major summer gatherings and festivals in the Northern Hemisphere.
“What seems to be happening now is that as a sexual form, as a genital form, it has invaded and spread the population as well as sexually transmitted infections, amplifying transmission around the world,” Heymann said.
He said the WHO meeting was called “because of the situation’s urgency”.
The committee is not the group that would propose declaring a public health emergency of international concern, the WHO’s highest form of alarm currently applying to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, Heymann said the international committee of experts, which met via videoconference, looked at what to study and communicate to the public about the outbreak, including whether there is an asymptomatic spread and who is most at risk. And what the different routes of transmission are.
He said close contact was the main transmission route for the virus, as the lesions typical of the disease are highly contagious.
For example, health professionals and parents caring for sick children are at risk. That’s why some countries have started inoculating teams treating monkeypox patients with vaccines against smallpox, a related virus.
Many of the current cases have been diagnosed in sexual health clinics.
Spanish authorities are investigating whether parties on the tourist island of Gran Canaria have been the source of several monkeypox infections, the daily El País reported on Saturday, citing healthcare sources.
About 80,000 people from Spain and other countries attended the Maspalomas Gay Pride festival that took place May 5-15, the newspaper reported.
Men from Madrid, Italy, and the neighboring island of Tenerife who tested positive for the virus are said to have attended the festival celebrations.
Not like COVID
Early genomic sequencing of a handful of cases in Europe has suggested a resemblance to the species, which spread limitedly in the UK, Israel, and Singapore in 2018.
Heymann said it was “biologically plausible” that the virus has since circulated outside countries where it is endemic but has not led to major outbreaks due to COVID-19 lockdowns, distance, and travel restrictions.
He stressed that the monkeypox outbreak was not like the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because it is not so easily transmitted.
He said those who suspect they may have been exposed or show symptoms, including the typical bumpy rash and fever, should avoid close contact with others.
“Vaccines are available, but the most important message is that you can protect yourself,” he added.