cases of monkey pox continue to increase worldwide, with more than 200 confirmed and suspected cases documented in over 20 countries. Scientists are beginning to gather their first clues about these outbreaks, including how the virus may have spread more widely than ever before.
according to a tracker By Tuesday afternoon, the Global.health group had reported 174 confirmed and 93 suspected cases from 21 countries. Britain and Spain have reported the most cases, and at least seven cases have been found in the US, including one in New York City. No deaths have been reported so far; The type of monkeypox virus associated with these cases is known to have a mortality rate of about 1%.
That viral infection tends to cause large, bumpy rashes throughout the body, along with flu-like symptoms. It can take up to three weeks after exposure for symptoms to begin and two weeks for the disease to resolve. The virus spreads primarily through direct contact, but can also be spread through contaminated surfaces and respiratory droplets and aerosols. Infected people are only considered contagious when they show symptoms.
Closely related to the now-extinct smallpox virus, monkeypox is endemic to parts of Africa and is thought to typically infect rodents. After its discovery in the 1950s, it has occasionally jumped from animals to humans, causing local outbreaks with limited transmission between humans. That makes these latest cases very different from previous incursions of the virus. But we might have some early signs of what’s going on.
Some researchers have succeeded in genetically sequencing virus samples collected from patients. This Results suggest that the strains in these cases are closely related to strains recently collected from Nigeria, where outbreaks have been ongoing since 2018. So far, at least, there seems to be no evidence that the virus has mutated in any significant way since then. which is reassuring. However, more research is needed to rule out the possibility that it somehow became inherently communicable between humans.
“Historically there has been human-to-human spread, but it has been quite limited. We don’t know yet that it spreads more easily from person to person. That’s a possible explanation, but I’m not yet aware of any evidence to support this idea,” Andrew Pavia, an infectious disease physician at the University of Utah, told Gizmodo last week.
If the virus itself hasn’t changed, these outbreaks may be the result of other factors, including how it’s now being caught. Many cases have been found in young gay and bisexual men who have recently been sexually active. And a consultant to the World Health Organization has argued that its spread may have been reinforced by two recent raves in Spain and Belgium, where casual sex was common.
However, even if this were true, it would not mean that gay or bisexual men are the only people at risk, as the virus can be spread through direct contact between any sex partner. It’s also possible that these cases were found first simply because these people are generally more aware of the risk of STDs and are therefore more likely to see a doctor regularly. On Tuesday, popular dating app Grindr cleverly issue a monkeypox warning to its users and advise them to seek medical attention if they or a recent sexual partner develop any unusual sores or rashes.
Other experts have argued that the virus may now be spreading further as immunity to the related smallpox virus wanes after it was eradicated in 1980. Smallpoxviruses often cause cross-immunity to other smallpoxviruses, but this protection has waned over time in the general population for a variety of reasons, according to Jo Walker, an infectious disease epidemiologist and modeler at the Yale School of Public Health.
“This ‘decreasing immunity’ is less due to waning immunity on an individual level and more to do with people dying with immunity and people being born without immunity and then not remaining immune,” Walker told Gizmodo last week.
The risk of monkeypox for the general public is still considered to be low. And now, says Pavia, there is no need to panic or worry for most people. “but It’s early days so that may change,” he noted.
Indeed, Hhealth authorities in Europe warned that if these outbreaks are not contained quickly and effectively enough, the virus could establish itself in new parts of the world and cause regular outbreaks from then on. And while monkeypox can be treated with preventive vaccines and treatments, the last thing the world needs right now is trouble from another emerging infectious disease.
This article has been updated with comments from Andrew Pavia and Jo Walker.