Monkeypox, a sometimes serious disease that can be transmitted to animals and humans, is typically found in central and western Africa. But the virus has now been seen far beyond the continent. Though the virus isn’t often deadly and doesn’t spread as easily as the coronavirus, the new cases of monkeypox raise pressing questions about how patients appear to have been infected far and wide.
A WHO committee called the Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential is scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss the cases. WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said WHO is convening meetings “on a daily basis” with experts from affected countries and others in the global health community.
The move comes as Germany, France and Belgium also confirmed their first cases of monkeypox, joining a growing list of countries that have seen cases of the rare viral disease in recent days.
What is monkeypox, the rare virus now confirmed in the US and Europe?
The first case in Germany was registered in Bavaria on Thursday, according to the Bundeswehr Institute for Microbiology, a military research facility of the Bundeswehr.
“On May 19, 2022, the Bundeswehr Institute for Microbiology in Munich unequivocally detected the monkeypox virus in a patient with characteristic skin changes for the first time in Germany,” says a statement from the medical service.
According to a statement from the Bavarian Ministry of Health, the patient is a 26-year-old man from Brazil who was traveling in Germany. The man had traveled through Portugal and Spain before entering Germany and had visited Düsseldorf and Frankfurt before reaching Munich, where he was said to have been for about a week.
According to state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said on Friday it was only a “matter of time” before monkeypox reached the country. Lauterbach said he was confident an outbreak of a virus that doesn’t appear to spread easily could be contained if authorities acted quickly.
“We will now analyze the virus more closely and check whether it is a more contagious variant,” Lauterbach said, according to Reuters.
France’s health ministry on Friday confirmed the country’s first monkeypox case in the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris. A 29-year-old man is not in any serious condition but is self-isolating at home, the agency said in a statement. Although the man had not recently traveled to a country where monkeypox was already spreading, health authorities have launched a full investigation into the case, according to the French Health Ministry.
In Belgium, officials at the Universitair Ziekenhuis Leuven hospital said they had confirmed two cases of monkeypox in the country with whole genome sequencing.
“People who see injuries like the ones in this photo should contact their doctor,” said the virologist Marc Van Ranst wrote in a tweet sharing photos of the characteristic lesions of monkeypox on Friday morning.
A spokesman for Belgium’s Care and Health Agency told Reuters that the first infected person was diagnosed in Antwerp. The person is not seriously ill and is now in isolation with their partner. Van Ranst wrote on Twitter that the second patient was a man who was diagnosed in Flemish Brabant.
Flemish broadcaster VRTNWS reported on Friday that although the two patients were diagnosed in different areas of the country, they may have attended the same party.
Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said the government is closely monitoring the situation. “Does that mean we have to fear a bigger outbreak here now? We don’t think so,” Vandenbroucke told VRTNWS. “But as always, caution and forethought must be exercised.”
Although most confirmed cases so far have been found in Europe, researchers in North America and Australia have also reported cases.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said Friday that the country has confirmed two cases of monkeypox and that “close to a few dozen” suspected cases are being investigated in Quebec and British Columbia. “We don’t know the extent to which the spread has occurred in Canada,” Tam told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa.
“So far we know not many of these are associated with travel to Africa, where the disease typically occurs, so this is unusual.”
Montreal public health director Mylène Drouin said Thursday that the first suspected cases of monkeypox in the region were reported on May 12 by clinics specializing in sexually transmitted diseases, although symptoms had begun weeks earlier.
She said the suspects are men between the ages of 30 and 55 who have had sex with other men. She said most cases are not serious and that the disease is not sexually transmitted but is spread through close contact.
Canadian public health officials said the labs have not yet completed genetic sequencing of the samples and one question is the role of asymptomatic transmission. They said the risk to the general population is considered low, but stressed the need to be open to the possibility that the virus has changed or evolved in some way.
“The fact that it’s now occurring in several countries in Europe as well as here in Canada — we need to know more about this,” Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said on Friday. “Has it evolved? Has it changed in terms of transmission and whatnot?”