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The outbreak of monkeypox is unusual but “containable,” the World Health Organization said on Tuesday, confirming 131 cases in 19 countries where the virus does not usually spread as the United States releases vaccines from its national stockpile for those exposed to the virus.
A further 106 cases are suspected but not confirmed, the WHO added.
Monkeypox is usually found in parts of Central and Western Africa and outbreaks elsewhere are rare and ordinarily linked to travel, though the recent outbreak suggests the disease is spreading in the community outside these areas.
While the outbreak is “not normal,” the WHO’s director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness Dr. Sylvie Briand said the virus is “containable” and limited, according to Reuters.
Briand urged countries to boost surveillance efforts to gain a better understanding of its transmission and said it isn’t clear whether the outbreak is just the “tip of the iceberg” or if transmission has already peaked.
There is one confirmed monkeypox case in the U.S. and six more presumptive cases. Other cases are suspected or confirmed in Europe—including Spain, the U.K., Belgium and Portugal—and countries like Australia and Canada. Though outbreaks of monkeypox outside of Africa have happened before—there was an outbreak linked to infected pet prairie dogs in the U.S. in 2003—most are linked to travel in affected regions and the appearance of the virus in multiple locations has puzzled scientists.
While rare outside Central and Western Africa, monkeypox is a known entity and relatively well understood. It is not easily transmitted between people and causes symptoms including fever and a characteristic rash, which can look like chickenpox. The disease is usually mild and will go away on its own within a month or so, though it is riskier for children, can cause complications during pregnancy and can cause serious illness and death in some cases, though the precise fatality rate is not known (it varies between 1% and 10% in parts of Africa, where two different strains of the virus circulate). As monkeypox is a close relative of smallpox—one of history’s biggest killers and the only human disease to have been successfully eradicated—there are treatments and vaccines available to curb its spread. The U.S. has a stockpile of smallpox vaccines large enough to vaccinate the entire population in the event of a smallpox or monkeypox emergency, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson told Forbes. The country is preparing to release some of these vaccines for those exposed to the virus, officials said on Monday, and Britain is reportedly offering vaccines to close contacts of monkeypox patients.
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