Although scientists rarely spot monkeypox outside of the 11 countries in Africa that have reported cases, a recent outbreak has led to the identification of the disease in a dozen European countries, as well as the United States, Australia, Canada and Israel.
At least 160 confirmed cases of monkeypox have been reported this month in non-African countries, according to Global.health, a group that collects data on infectious diseases. All but 10 of these cases have occurred in Europe: 56 in the UK, 41 in Spain, 37 in Portugal and single-digit cases in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, in the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.
Four times as many countries outside Africa reported monkeypox this month than in the previous 50 years. Until recently, the largest outbreak in the Western Hemisphere occurred in 2003, when prairie dogs infected 47 people in the United States.
“What this really marks is the emergence of the most significant poxvirus since the eradication of smallpox now in the Western Hemisphere,” said Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. . “Of course, we are concerned if we start to see further spread of this virus and then it establishes itself in the human population.”
Many people who contracted monkeypox in the current outbreak have no history of recent travel to Africa or known exposure to an infected person. Cases have been widely identified among young men who have sex with men, leading experts to believe the disease is spread through skin-to-skin contact, possibly through exposure to rashes and lesions. during sexual activity, World Health Organization officials said Monday.
Monkeypox is most commonly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, where the virus is endemic. The first human case of monkeypox was diagnosed in the DRC in 1970. Since then, the virus has mainly appeared in people who have been exposed to infected animals, either through bites or scratches, or through the preparation of game meat wild. Monkeypox does not usually spread easily between people.
But the DRC and Nigeria have both seen an increase in monkeypox cases. DRC has reported over 18,000 confirmed or suspected cases of monkeypox from 2010 to 2019, compared to around 10,000 from 2000 to 2009, and over 6,000 suspected cases in 2020. Nigeria has reported over 200 confirmed cases since 2017 and more than 500 suspected cases. , According to WHO.
“All imported cases outside of Africa that have occurred since 2018 were from Nigeria,” said Dr. Agam Rao, a physician in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Conditions.
The recent cases belong to the West African clade of monkeypox, which is relatively mild: about 1% of people who contract it die, compared to 10% for the Congo Basin clade, according to the WHO.
The risk to the general population is low, Rimoin said, but the outbreak nonetheless shows that infectious diseases rarely stay in one place.
“It’s a very important reminder that an infection anywhere is potentially an infection everywhere,” she said.
Joe Murphy contributed.