The current outbreak of the monkeypox virus is primarily spreading through sex among men, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said, adding that the virus is “containable”.
First reported on May 7 in the UK, monkeypox has rapidly spread to over a dozen countries, where the virus is typically not found unlike some countries in Central and West Africa, with about 200 confirmed and suspected cases. So far no-associated deaths have been reported.
The WHO has warned that the infection is likely to spread to more nations even as it expands surveillance. It further said that the identification of confirmed and suspected cases of monkeypox with no direct travel links to an endemic area “represents a highly unusual event”.
“We’ve seen a few cases in Europe over the last five years, just in travellers, but this is the first time we’re seeing cases across many countries at the same time in people who have not travelled to the endemic regions in Africa,” Rosamund Lewis, who runs the WHO’s smallpox research, said in a Q&A live streamed on the health body’s social media channels.
While the virus itself is not a sexually transmitted infection, which are generally spread through semen and vaginal fluids, the most recent surge in cases appears to have been spread among men who have sex with other men, WHO officials said, emphasising that anyone can contract monkeypox, the CNBC reported.
“Many diseases can be spread through sexual contact. You could get a cough or a cold through sexual contact, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a sexually transmitted disease,” Andy Seale, who advises the WHO on HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections, was quoted as saying.
Monkeypox has not previously been described as a sexually transmitted infection, but it can be passed on by direct contact during sex.
Further, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) noted that the likelihood of spread is very low for the broader population, BBC reported.
But, the transmission is majorly occurring “through close contact for example during sexual activities amongst persons with multiple sexual partners is considered to be high”, Andrea Ammon of the ECDC, was quoted as saying.
The WHO also noted that monkeypox can be contained in countries outside of Africa where the virus is not usually detected.
“This is a containable situation,” the WHO’s emerging disease lead Maria Van Kerkhove said at a news conference on Monday.
“We want to stop human-to-human transmission. We can do this in non-endemic countries,” she added, referring to recent cases in Europe and North America.
Despite being the largest outbreak outside of Africa in 50 years, monkeypox does not spread easily between people and experts say the threat is not comparable to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Transmission is really happening from skin-to-skin contact, most of the people who have been identified have more of a mild disease,” Van Kerkhove said.
The WHO added that there was no evidence the monkeypox virus had mutated, following earlier speculation over the cause of the current outbreak.
Viruses in this group “tend not to mutate and they tend to be fairly stable,” said Lewis.
Experts have also suggested that countries should review the availability of the smallpox vaccine which is also effective against monkeypox.