News of increased spread of monkeypox, a rare viral infection typically found in west and central African countries, is being reported around the globe.
Health officials in Quebec have confirmed the first two cases in Canada, while noting that 20 other suspected cases are under investigation. Officials in the U.K. and the U.S. are confirming rising case numbers, while European nations like Sweden, Italy, France and Belgium have also made diagnoses.
So what is monkeypox and should there be a cause for concern?
Current outbreak suggest community transmission
Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto-based infectious diseases physician and scientist, explains that when it’s not infecting humans, monkeypox is found in rodent populations. He says there are periodic outbreaks of the virus in west and central Africa.
“There have been several times where an infected person has travelled and we see cases in non-endemic countries, like the United Kingdom and the United States,” he tells Yahoo Canada News. “In general, these small outbreaks have been quelled quickly.”
What’s unique about the current international situation, is it appears to be a larger outbreak and it involves several countries. Many people have no direct link to anyone who’s travelled, suggesting there’s been some degree of community transmission.
Monkeypox symptoms and transmission
The virus is transmitted through human-to-human contact. Most cases of transmission are through direct contact or close contact with an infected individual. There have been cases of airborne transmission of the virus in the past.
It takes about two weeks before an infected person develops symptoms, which include fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes and a few days later, the development of a characteristic rash. It is similar, but not identical, to the chickenpox rash.
“Usually with chickenpox, you see lesions on the skin emerge at different times and resolve at different times,” Bogoch says. “With monkeypox, there’s usually more synchrony with the lesions. They emerge and resolve at the same pace.”
Most cases of monkeypox are mild though there have been more severe cases reported. Monkeypox are closely related to smallpox, a virus that has been entirely eradicated. While there have been smallpox vaccine programs, most of them ended in the 1970s and 1980s. Typically people under 40 don’t have the vaccine, but those who do have it will have some form of protection.
In the U.K., public health is finding cases and isolating them, then executing a “ring vaccine strategy”, where they trace close contact with cases of monkeypox, and then vaccinate those people with a vaccine that will work for both smallpox and monkeypox.
“We’ll likely see more cases of this in the days and perhaps weeks ahead,” says Bogoch. “But with a strong public health response and a smart ring vaccine program, case identification and isolation, we should be able to get this under control hopefully on the sooner end of the spectrum.”