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Explainer: Should you be concerned about monkeypox?

Monkeypox is an infectious disease that is endemic in parts of west and central Africa. But a recent spurt of cases globally has health officials on alert

FILE - This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virions, left, and spherical immature virions, right, obtained from a sample of human skin. (AP)

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While the world is still grappling with the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, another viral zoonotic disease has health officials around the world on alert. Global health officials have sounded the alarm over rising cases of monkeypox in Europe and other countries. This is a type of viral infection that is more common to west and central Africa.

As of Saturday, 92 confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases of monkeypox have been reported from 12 member states that are not endemic for the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) said. A Reuters report on Saturday said that WHO was also working on further guidance for countries on how to mitigate the spread of monkeypox. The UN agency also said it expects to identify more cases as it expands surveillance in countries where the disease is not typically found. Here’s a look at what else is known about the outbreak so far.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with monkeypox virus, which belongs to the Orthopoxvirus genus in the family Poxviridae. The Orthopoxvirus genus also includes variola virus (which causes smallpox). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), monkeypox was first discovered in 1958. The first human case found in 1970.

In humans, the symptoms of monkeypox are similar to but milder than the symptoms of smallpox, the CDC website explains. Monkeypox begins with fever, headache, muscle aches, and exhaustion. The main difference between symptoms of smallpox and monkeypox is that monkeypox causes lymph nodes to swell (lymphadenopathy) while smallpox does not.

The virus is transmitted when a person comes into contact with the virus from an animal, human, or materials contaminated with the virus. The virus can also enter the body through broken skin (even if not visible), respiratory tract, or the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth).

The virus is not as easily transmitted as the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a Reuters report explains. Health experts believe the current outbreak is being spread through close, intimate skin on skin contact with someone who has an active rash. That should make its spread easier to contain once infections are identified, the report adds.

Head of the Institute of Microbiology of the German Armed Forces Roman Woelfel works in his laboraty in Munich, May 20, 2022, after Germany has detected its first case of monkeypox.
Head of the Institute of Microbiology of the German Armed Forces Roman Woelfel works in his laboraty in Munich, May 20, 2022, after Germany has detected its first case of monkeypox. (REUTERS)

Health authorities are concerned because…

The recent outbreaks reported so far are atypical, according to the WHO, as they are occurring in countries where the virus does not regularly circulate. Scientists are seeking to understand the origin of the current cases and whether anything about the virus has changed, the Reuters report says.

WHO official David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist, told Reuters that it was "biologically plausible" the virus had been circulating outside of the countries where it is endemic, but had not led to major outbreaks as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing and travel restrictions. Heymann stressed that the monkeypox outbreak did not resemble the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic because it does not transmit as easily.

How can people stay safe against possible infection?

According to the Reuters report, health officials say that people should avoid close personal contact with someone who has a rash illness or who is otherwise unwell. People who suspect they have monkeypox should isolate and seek medical care.

Many countries have already started inoculating healthcare workers with the smallpox vaccine, which can also protect against monkeypox.

In India, Kerala health minister Veena George directed the district authorities in the state to remain vigilant and create awareness about the disease. The minister said the health department has called a special meeting and initiated the necessary precautionary measures, a Press Trust of India report said. Union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya had on Friday directed the National Centre for Disease Control and the Indian Council of Medical Research to keep a close watch on the situation.

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