As the monkeypox panic spreads, doctors in Africa see a double standard

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As the monkeypox panic spreads, doctors in Africa see a double standard

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DAKAR, Senegal — In a part of Nigeria that has been grappling with monkeypox outbreaks for years, a doctor this week saw photos circulating in Western media and giggled.

“These are them very severe cases,” said Oyewale Tomori, a virologist in the nation’s southwest. “Like ‘Ah! This is monkeypox!’ ”

The virus, discovered five decades ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, causes mild illness in most people, he said, along with blisters that usually clear up within weeks. It is much less transmissible than the coronavirus and much less deadly than Ebola. There is already an effective vaccine.

What’s bothering infectious disease experts across the continent is the double standard that has emerged since monkeypox caught the world’s attention: Few seemed to care or even notice until people in the West started getting sick will.

In the past two weeks, cases of the animal-borne virus, typically found in west and central Africa, have emerged in the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel and a growing number of European countries. There have been at least 92 confirmed infections and no deaths. Belgium has imposed a 21-day quarantine. President Biden assured Americans that the United States has enough vaccine supplies to meet the threat.

But global alarm bells didn’t ring as several African nations battled outbreaks in recent months. The graphic images blazing across social media — some of which have been used to illustrate monkeypox since the 1970s — rarely show white patients.

“These cases are being registered in Europe,” said Tomori. “Why do you use an image of an African? This is your smallpox.”

The World Health Organization has yet to verify the origin of the outbreak, although a WHO adviser told the Associated Press the cases could be linked to raves in Spain and Belgium. Monkeypox is usually spread through close contact, including sexual activity.

Health officials suspect the virus has been roaming undetected in non-endemic countries for some time — possibly as early as 2018. Early testing suggests cases are from the West African strain, which the WHO says has a mortality rate of about 1 percent.

Before monkeypox swept the west this year, the WHO said Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic all recorded low case numbers. But contact tracing is limited, said Yap Boum, an epidemiologist from Cameroon. Infections usually occur in remote, forested areas where people encounter monkeypox-carrying wildlife, such as primates and rodents.

“Maybe now that it’s happening over there, the problem will get more attention,” Boum said, “and we’ll get access to more vaccines, more treatments — all the things we didn’t have money for.”

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is grappling with what is by far the largest outbreak in the world: at least 1,238 cases and 57 deaths since January. The strain found there is also much more deadly, with a mortality rate of up to 10 percent. Many deaths are preventable, doctors said, but finding treatment can be difficult in areas with underfunded hospitals.

“It can be just as devastating as Covid-19,” Health Minister Jean Jacques Mbungani said. But the country’s monkeypox preparations lost momentum during the pandemic. The nation needs more testing, more vaccinations, more medical workers to find cases and care for the sick.

“The response is not effective,” Mbungani said, “and remains lethargic due to resource constraints.”

As monkeypox cases rise in Europe and other parts of the world, health officials are expressing concern at the unusual surge. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Meryl Kornfield/Washington Post)

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said Monday the majority of documented cases were mild. Small children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are at increased risk.

One of Nigeria’s top genome sequencing experts, Christian Happi, invites his colleagues to come and study how his country is dealing with monkeypox.

“It’s not that scary here,” he said. “People are used to it. Find out more from our health authorities. Come and see how we contain it.”

The global enthusiasm to fight the virus should have come sooner, he said. Perhaps it could have been eradicated by now.

“Watching for diseases wherever they occur benefits everyone,” he said. “As the pandemic has shown us, we’re all in this together.”

Ombour reported from Nairobi.

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