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Europe, US on alert after rare monkeypox virus outbreak

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 associated with the 2003 prairie dog outbreak. (Photo by AP)

With the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering, a new health scare in the form of a rare viral infection of monkeypox has emerged in Europe and the US, putting health authorities on high alert.

The outbreak is small — so far 68 suspected cases, including 8 in England and 20 in Portugal, have been identified – but the transmission ways of the virus are still shrouded in mystery.

Health authorities in the UK have little clue where people contracted the virus, amid growing concern the virus may be spreading through the community, possibly through a new route of transmission.

The rare viral disease was first reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1970s.

Apart from the UK and Portugal, Spain said it was testing 23 potential cases, Canada reported 13 suspected cases of the virus, Sweden confirmed one case on Thursday, Australia has also found a "probable" case while the US state of Massachusetts announced it had found a case in a man who recently traveled to Canada.

"This [outbreak] is rare and unusual," epidemiologist Susan Hopkins, who's the chief medical adviser of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said in a statement on Monday.

"Exactly where and how they [the people] acquired their infections remains under urgent investigation," the agency said in the statement.

Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was quoted as saying that it was "highly unusual".

"Historically, there have been very few cases exported. It has only happened eight times in the past before this year," he said.

Monkeypox causes fever, body aches, enlarged lymph nodes, and eventually "pox," or painful, fluid-filled blisters on the face, hands, and feet, according to medical experts.

Most people recover from the illness, which is endemic in parts of central and western Africa and usually the result of close contact with infected animals, within a few weeks, but it can be fatal.

One of its versions is deemed deadly and kills up to 10 percent of people infected, but the version spreading presently in the UK is said to be milder with a 1 percent fatality rate.

The first case of monkeypox was confirmed in the UK earlier this month. The country is working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate the virus’s spread after being unable to find a link between the initial case, in a man who had traveled from Nigeria, and the more recent ones.

Health authorities suspect some of the infections may have occurred through sexual contact – in this instance among gay or bisexual men – with four of the UK cases identified among people who visited sexual health clinics after developing the rash associated with monkeypox.

"What is even more bizarre is finding cases that appear to have acquired the infection via sexual contact," epidemiologist Mateo Prochazka at the UKHSA tweeted. "This is a novel route of transmission that will have implications for outbreak response and control."


What is even more bizarre is finding cases that appear to have acquired the infection via sexual contact - this is a novel route of transmission that will have implications for outbreak response and control.

— Mateo Prochazka (@teozka) May 17, 2022


“No source of infection has yet been confirmed for either the family or GBMSM clusters,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Based on currently available information, the infection seems to have been locally acquired in the United Kingdom. The extent of local transmission is unclear at this stage and there is the possibility of identification of further cases.”

The UK, Portugal, Spain, and the US are among the countries that have reported the monkeypox virus infection cases in recent days.

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