(ORDO NEWS) — The WHO said hundreds of cases of monkeypox had emerged outside African countries where the disease commonly occurs, warning that the virus likely spread undetected.
“The investigation is ongoing, but the sudden appearance of monkeypox in many countries at the same time suggests that transmission of the virus may not have been detected for some time,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, told reporters.
Since the UK first reported a confirmed case of monkeypox on May 7, more than 550 cases have been confirmed in 30 countries outside West and Central Africa, where it is endemic, the WHO said.
The UN health agency’s chief smallpox expert, Rosamund Lewis, said the emergence of so many cases in much of Europe and in other countries where it had not previously been “clearly worrying and suggests undetected transmission for some time.”
“We don’t know if it will be a few weeks, months or maybe a few years,” she said, adding that “we don’t know if it’s too late for containment.”
Monkeypox is related to the smallpox that killed millions of people around the world each year until it was eradicated in 1980.
But monkeypox, which is spread by close contact, is much less serious, with symptoms typically including a high fever and a blistering rash similar to chickenpox that clears up in a few weeks.
So far, most cases have been reported among men who have sex with men, although experts stress that there is no evidence that smallpox is sexually transmitted.
“Any person can get monkeypox if they have close physical contact with another infected person,” Tedros said.
He urged everyone to help “combat stigma, which is not only misguided, but can prevent infected people from seeking medical care, making it difficult to stop transmission.”
The WHO, he said, is also “calling for affected countries to expand their surveillance.”
Lewis stressed that “it is vital that we all work together to prevent further spread” by tracing contacts and isolating people with the disease.
Vaccines developed for smallpox have also been shown to be about 85% effective in preventing monkeypox, but they are in short supply.
WHO does not propose mass vaccination, but targeted use in some settings to protect healthcare workers and people most at risk of infection.
Lewis stressed that the number of cases of monkeypox is also on the rise in endemic countries, where thousands of people fall ill from the disease every year, and about 70 deaths from the virus have been reported in five African countries this year.
The mortality rate in smallpox is usually quite low, and among cases found so far outside endemic countries, not a single death has been recorded.
However, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s head of emerging diseases, warned that while no deaths have yet been reported, the situation could change if the virus reaches more vulnerable populations.
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