A handful of monkeypox cases in Britain has prompted authorities to offer a smallpox vaccine to some health workers and others who may have been exposed as a handful of other cases have been confirmed in some parts of Europe.
Monkeypox is a usually mild viral illness characterized by symptoms of fever along with a characteristic bumpy rash.
There are two main strains: the Congo strain, which is more severe – 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 by close contact and occurs mainly in West and Central Africa. It has rarely spread elsewhere, so this new wave of cases outside the continent has raised concerns.
In the UK, nine cases of the West African strain have been reported so far.
There is no specific vaccine against monkeypox, but a smallpox vaccine offers some protection, a spokesperson for the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said.
Data shows that vaccines that have been used to eradicate smallpox are up to 85% effective against monkeypox, according to the World Health Organization.
“Those who needed the vaccine were offered it,” the UKHSA spokesman added, without giving details of the number of people vaccinated so far.
Some countries have large stocks of smallpox vaccine as part of pandemic preparedness, including the United States.
Copenhagen-based drugmaker Bavarian Nordic 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.
“We are however concerned about the multiple countries outside, particularly in Europe, that are experiencing these outbreaks of monkeypox,” said the acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ahmed Ogwell Ouma.
“It would be very helpful if knowledge was shared about the real source of these outbreaks,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the UKHSA has pointed out that recent cases in the country have mainly involved men who have identified as gay, bisexual or who have sex with men.
This unusual spike in cases outside of Africa could suggest a new way of spread or a change in the virus, said Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA in California. “But all of that remains to be determined.”
“It’s not going to cause a nationwide outbreak like COVID has,” warned Jimmy Whitworth, professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“But this is a serious epidemic of a serious disease – and we should take it seriously.”