A handful of monkeypox cases in Britain have prompted authorities to offer a smallpox vaccine to some health workers and others who may have been exposed, as a few more cases have been confirmed in parts of Europe.
Monkeypox is a generally mild viral illness, characterized by symptoms of fever as well as a distinctive bumpy rash.
There are two main strains: the Congo strain, which is more serious, with up to 10% mortality, and the West African strain, which has a mortality rate of around 1%.
First identified in monkeys, the viral disease is usually spread through close contact and occurs mainly in West and Central Africa. It has rarely spread to other places, so this new wave of cases outside the continent has raised concern.
In the UK, nine cases of the West African strain have been reported so far.
There is no specific vaccine for monkeypox, but a smallpox vaccine offers some protection, a UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) spokesman said.
Data shows that vaccines used to eradicate smallpox are up to 85% effective against monkeypox, according to the World Health Organization.
“Those who have required the vaccine have been offered it,” the UKHSA spokesman added, without disclosing details of how many people have been vaccinated so far.
Some countries have large stockpiles of smallpox vaccine as part of pandemic preparedness, including the United States.
Copenhagen-based Bavarian Nordic drugmaker BAVA.CO said on Thursday it had secured a contract with an undisclosed European country to supply its smallpox vaccine, Imvanex, in response to the monkeypox outbreak.
The first European case was confirmed on May 7 in an individual who returned to England from Nigeria, where monkeypox is endemic.
Since then, Portugal has registered 14 cases and Spain has confirmed seven cases. The United States and Sweden have also reported one case each. Italian authorities have confirmed one case and suspect two more.
Several outbreaks of monkeypox in Africa have been contained during the COVID pandemic while the world’s attention was elsewhere, Africa’s top public health agency said on Thursday.
“However, we are concerned that multiple countries, especially in Europe, are seeing these outbreaks of monkeypox,” said Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Acting Director Ahmed Ogwell Ouma.
“It would be very helpful if knowledge was shared about what the source of these outbreaks really is,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the UKHSA has highlighted that recent cases in the country were predominantly among men who self-identified as gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men.
This unusual rise in cases outside of Africa could suggest a new means of spread or a change in the virus, said Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA in California. “But all of this remains to be determined.”
“This is not going to cause a nationwide epidemic like COVID did,” said Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“But it is a serious outbreak of a serious disease, and we need to take it seriously.”
(Reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Natalie Grover in London; Twitter @NatalieGrover; additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm and Agnieszka Flak in Milan; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)