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The outbreak of the monkeypox virus in North America and Europe is spread mainly through sex among men with about 200 confirmed and suspected cases in at least a dozen countries, World Health Organization officials said Monday.
The outbreak has progressed rapidly in Europe and North America in the past week and is expected to be much more prevalent as more doctors look for signs and symptoms. Two confirmed and one suspected cases of monkeypox in the UK were reported to the WHO just 10 days ago, the first cases this year outside Africa, where the virus has typically circulated at low levels for the past 40 years, the organization said.
“We have seen several cases in Europe in the last five years, only in travelers, but this is the first time we have seen cases in many countries at the same time in people who have not traveled to endemic regions in Africa,” said Dr. Rosamund Lewis. who leads the WHO study on smallpox, in Q&A, broadcast live on the organization’s social media channels.
European nations have confirmed dozens of cases in what has become the largest outbreak of monkeypox ever on the continent, according to the German military. The United States and Canada have at least five confirmed or suspected cases so far. Belgium has just introduced a mandatory 21-day quarantine for patients with monkeypox.
The WHO convened an emergency meeting this weekend via videoconference to look into the virus, identify the most endangered and investigate its transmission. The organization will hold a second global meeting on monkeypox next week to further explore the risks and treatments available to fight the virus.
Although the virus itself is not a sexually transmitted infection that is usually spread through semen and vaginal fluids, the most recent surge appears to have been among men who have sex with other men, WHO officials said. that anyone can get monkeypox.
“Many diseases can be spread through sexual contact. You can get a cough or a cold through sexual contact, but that doesn’t mean it’s a sexually transmitted disease,” said Andy Seal, who advises the WHO on HIV, hepatitis and others. sexually transmitted infections.
The virus is spread through close contact with people, animals or materials infected with the virus. It enters the body through injured skin, respiratory tract, eyes, nose and mouth. Although human-to-human transmission is also thought to occur through respiratory droplets, this method requires prolonged face-to-face contact, as droplets cannot travel more than a few feet, according to the CDC.
“It’s a virus that’s super stable outside of the human host, so it can live on objects like blankets and things like that,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC in a separate interview with Squawk Box on Monday. “So you can see situations where people don’t want to try on clothes, things like that, when it can be devastating in areas where it’s spreading, like New York.”
He said he expects more confirmed cases in the United States in the coming weeks as doctors and public health officials reevaluate patients who have shown symptoms and the virus continues to spread.
Monkeypox is a disease caused by a virus from the same family as smallpox, but it is not as severe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, monkeypox can kill up to 1 in 10 people infected with the disease, based on observations in Africa, according to the CDC.
The vaccine used to prevent smallpox appears to be about 85% effective in preventing monkeypox in observational studies in Africa, said WHO officials. But vaccines are not widely available, so it is important to reserve them for populations that are most at risk, said Maria Van Kerkhove, a leading WHO epidemiologist on zoological diseases. She said the WHO would work with vaccine manufacturers to see if they could increase production.
Early symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, back pain, muscle aches and low energy, said WHO officials. This then progresses to a rash on the face, arms, legs, eyes, mouth or genitals, which turns into bulging bumps or papules, which then turn into blisters that often resemble chickenpox. They can then fill with white liquid, turning into a pustule that breaks and scabs form.
Gottlieb described it as a debilitating disease that can last two to four months and has a long 21-day incubation period.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an uncontrolled spread in the same way that we tolerated the Covid-19 epidemic,” Gottlieb said. “But there is a possibility that this has now entered the community, if it is actually more common than what we are measuring at the moment, it becomes difficult to eliminate.”
– CNBC Spencer Kimball and Karen Gilchrist contributed to this article.
Disclosure: Dr. Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and a member of the boards of Pfizer, the startup genetic testing company Tempus, the healthcare technology company Aetion and the biotechnology company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean’s Healthy Sail Panel.