LONDON ( Associated Press) – European and US health officials have identified several monkeypox cases in recent days, mostly in young men. This is a surprising outbreak of a disease that rarely appears outside Africa.
Read more: 80 confirmed cases of monkeypox worldwide are baffling African scientists who have long studied the disease
Health officials around the world are tracking more cases as the disease is spreading for the first time among people who have not traveled to Africa. However, they emphasize that the risk to the general population is low.
What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a virus that originates in wild animals such as rodents and primates, and is sometimes jumped to people. Most human cases have occurred in Central and West Africa, where the disease is endemic.
The disease was first identified by scientists in 1958 when there were two outbreaks of “pox-like” disease in research monkeys – thus the name monkeypox. The first known human infection occurred in 1970 in a 9-year-old boy in a remote part of the Congo.
What are the symptoms and how is it treated?
Monkeypox belongs to the same virus family as smallpox but causes mild symptoms.
Most patients experience only fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more severe disease may have a rash and sores on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.
The incubation period ranges from about five days to three weeks. Most people recover within about two to four weeks without the need for hospitalization.
Monkeypox can be fatal to one in 10 people and is thought to be more serious in children.
People exposed to the virus are often given one of several smallpox vaccines, which have been shown to be effective against monkeypox. Antiviral drugs are also being developed.
On Thursday, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control recommended isolating all suspected cases and offering the smallpox vaccine to high-risk contacts.
How many monkeypox cases are there usually?
The World Health Organization estimates that there are thousands of monkeypox infections each year in about a dozen African countries. Most are in Congo, which reports 6,000 cases annually, and Nigeria has about 3,000 cases annually.
Poor health monitoring systems mean many infected people are likely to be missed, experts say.
Isolated cases of monkeypox are sometimes seen outside Africa, including the US and UK. Cases are usually associated with travel to Africa or contact with animals from areas where the disease is more common.
In 2003, 47 people in six US states had confirmed or probable cases. They caught the virus from domesticated prairie dogs kept near small mammals imported from Ghana.
What is different in these cases?
This is the first time monkeypox has been spreading among people who do not travel to Africa. Most cases involve men who have had sex with men.
In Europe, cases of infection have been reported in Britain, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
Britain’s Health Protection Agency said its cases are not all linked, suggesting that multiple chains of transmission are taking place. In Portugal the infection was picked up at a sexual health clinic, where men sought help for sores on their genitals.
On Wednesday, US officials reported a case of monkeypox in a man who had recently traveled to Canada. The Public Health Agency of Canada also confirmed two cases linked to that positive test. Health officials in Quebec previously said they suspected 17 cases in the Montreal area.
Is monkeypox spread through sex?
It is possible, but it is not clear at the moment.
Monkeypox has not previously been documented to be spread through sex, but it can be transmitted through close contact with infected people, their body fluids, and their clothing or bedsheets.
Read more: Monkeypox outbreak likely to spread by sex in Europe in 2 waves, says WHO expert
Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, said it was still too early to determine how men in the UK became infected.
“By nature, sexual activity involves intimate contact that would be expected to increase the likelihood of transmission, regardless of a person’s sexual orientation and mode of transmission,” Skinner said.
François Balloux of University College London said that monkeypox said sex is worthy of the kind of close contact it requires to transmit the disease.
Britain’s cases “do not necessarily imply any recent change in the route of transmission of the virus,” Balloux said.
Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal contributed to this report.