The outbreak of monkeypox that hit the UK, US and continental Europe this month appears to be spreading.
There are now 179 confirmed cases in the UK, with infections also being reported in 23 countries outside West Africa, including the US, Australia, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden, as health officials scramble to reassure the public.
Speaking on a recent trip to South Korea, US President Joe Biden was asked how worrying the disease was and replied, “It’s worrying in that there would be consequences if it spread… You didn’t tell me.” Don’t have the level of exposure yet, but it’s something everyone should be concerned about.
He later qualified his response, saying: “I just don’t think it reaches the level of concern that there was with Covid-19.”
In the UK, both Simon Clarke, chief secretary of the Treasury, and Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, also dismissed the idea that its spread should be viewed with the same level of concern as the arrival of the coronavirus in spring 2020.
Given the UK has historically only seen small clusters of infections, Sir Jeremy told BBC Radio 4 today Program that: “This is different, something has changed.”
He added: “The virus may have changed, but I think that’s unlikely. More likely, I think, is that the niche that this virus is in now allowed for some superspreader events and the people involved then traveled to other parts of the world and took the infection with them.”
For his part, Boris Johnson is sufficiently relaxed about the threat not to have spoken to Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty about the virus, but is receiving “regular updates”, according to Downing Street.
Where does monkey pox come from?
The World Health Organization (WHO) traces the disease to the tropical rainforests of Central and West Africa and defines it as a viral zoonotic (ie, animal-to-human transmissible) disease, similar to smallpox, which itself was eradicated in 1980.
The first recorded case of monkeypox was identified in 1970 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While it would originally have been transmitted to humans through contact with the blood or body fluids of contaminated primates (or rodents such as tree squirrels and Gambian rats), it is an infectious disease and is therefore much more likely to be transmitted by fellow humans who are suffering.
What are the symptoms?
The disease has an incubation period of six to 16 days. In the initial phase, patients initially suffer from fever, headaches, swelling, back pain, sore muscles and general listlessness.
Once the fever breaks, the sufferer’s body is faced with a rash, with a rash spreading across the face, followed by the rest of the body, most commonly the palms and soles of the feet.
The blemishes progress from lesions to crusted blisters, which can then take three weeks to heal and go away.
The virus can be difficult to diagnose without the help of laboratory analysis due to its superficial resemblance to other conditions that cause a rash, such as chickenpox, measles, scabies, and syphilis.
How dangerous is it?
Although this strain of the orthopoxvirus is much milder than smallpox, deaths have been recorded, particularly among young people. The WHO puts the mortality rate at less than 10 percent.
The largest-ever outbreak in Nigeria in 2017 identified 172 suspected cases of monkeypox and reported 61 confirmed cases across the country. 75 percent of those affected were male and between 21 and 40 years old.
No vaccine or specific treatment is currently available, but pre-existing smallpox has been shown to be 85 percent effective in controlling the disease.
Professor Francois Balloux, Director of the UCL Genetics Institute, said: “Monkeypox is not particularly transmissible and the number of known cases to date has been relatively small.”