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Two-hundred people are being monitored for monkeypox in Massachusetts after coming into contact with the unnamed man who became the state’s first confirmed case last week, a health official revealed Monday.
Dr Jennifer McQuiston, a deputy director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said most of the exposed were healthcare workers, although a few were also ‘personal’ contacts of the patient.
But she added it was difficult to spread monkeypox because it typically requires sustained physical touch, pointing out that many contacts are usually negative.
The infectious diseases expert revealed the tally at a briefing this afternoon, where she also warned the virus may have been spreading un-detected for months.
During the briefing experts also warned many of the recent patients had infectious skin lesions in the genital area, which could be mistaken for a bad case of herpes.
America now has one confirmed and four suspected cases of the disease — endemic to west Africa — in the global outbreak, all in men and linked to international travel. Globally, there are more than 100 cases, mostly in Europe.
Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to pick up the virus in a man in his 40s who had recently returned from Canada by car. Florida, New York and Utah are also probing suspected infections.
Health chiefs are alarmed by the disproportionate number of cases among gay and bisexual men, saying it may be passing between people via sex.
European health chiefs are warning the virus could become endemic on the continent if cases are not quickly found. Many are not linked to travel there.
The outbreak has now spread to 16 countries, with Argentina and Greece today becoming the 17th and 18th nations to announce they are probing suspected cases
Dr Jennifer McQuiston, an infectious disease expert at the CDC, revealed about 200 people were being monitored for the virus in Massachusetts. Dr John Brooks, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, said many cases were being mistaken for herpes
Asked about the situation in Massachusetts, McQuiston said: ‘They are tracking over 200 contacts out there but the vast majority are healthcare workers.
‘There are also some personal contacts, however.’
But attempting to calm fears, she added: ‘Previous efforts show that this is not an easily transmissible virus.
Pride could be cancelled if U.S. cases of monkeypox surge
Fears have been raised that Pride parades next month could be cancelled if monkeypox cases continue to surge.
Up to five cases have been detected so far, with a disproportionate number among gay and bisexual men.
Several have been linked back to Pride events in Spain and Belgium.
Asked whether this means the U.S. could move to cancel its pride events, CDC medical epidemiologist Dr John Brooks raised the prospect.
He told a briefing: ‘There is not sufficient evidence of spread occurring so rapidly that we would shut down any events or tell people not to attend at present.
‘If someone suffers symptoms, we recommend them getting tested for STIs including monkeypox.’
The virus has now been detected in 16 countries, with none suggesting suspending their pride events.
But in the UK any potential case is being probed as STI clinics.
‘Out of the nine travel-associated cases that left Nigeria and the multiple contacts that were followed up, we are not aware of any monkeypox cases that spread from them.’
McQuiston did not give any details on how many people were being monitored in the other states.
Health chiefs in Utah say there is ‘no risk’ the virus has been spread to others, while in New York City the one contact to an infected person officials were following up with tested negative. It is unclear how many people are being monitored in Florida.
Seven people were being monitored for an infection earlier this month after sitting within three-rows of a case on a flight from Nigeria to the UK on May 4. There have been no positive tests reported from the group.
Asked how long the virus had been spreading, she said: ‘It has been circulating for a couple of weeks, perhaps a couple of months, but we are still in the early stages before we know more.’
Health chiefs believe the virus is mainly spreading through sexual contact with infectious lesions in the genital area.
Dr John Brooks, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, warned these were often being mistaken for other diseases such as herpes.
He revealed in one case an individual thought they just had a severe form of herpes before they went to see medics.
It can also be transmitted through the air — with lesions in the throat or mouth allowing it to infect droplets — but this is not the main route of transmission.
People at risk of catching the virus are being administered with smallpox vaccine, branded as Jynneous — which also works against monkeypox.
The national stockpile of at least 1,000 doses is now being rolled out, with patients given two doses four weeks apart. It is meant to bolster the immune system to ensure it can fend off a potential infection.
Most people who catch the virus develop mild symptoms and recover on their own within two to four weeks.
But some cases can progress into serious disease with about one in 100 infected people dying.
One outbreak is currently being linked to a Gay pride festival in Gran Canaria, Spain, attended by 80,000 people, and a fetish event in Antwerp, Belgium.
Several cases have also been traced back to a ‘sauna’ in Spain, which is a colloquial term in the country for a place where men meet to have sex with men.
World Health Organization chiefs said today the leading theory was that the virus had been spread due to unsafe sex at mass events.
Dr David Heymann, an infectious disease specialist at the agency, said: ‘What seems to be happening now is that it has got into the population as a sexual form, as a genital form, and is being spread as are sexually transmitted infections, which has amplified transmission around the world.’
‘We know monkeypox can spread when there is close contact with the lesions of someone who is infected, and it looks like sexual contact has now amplified that transmission.’
This is a significant departure from monkeypox’s normal mode of transmission, which is via contact with infected animals.
It comes after President Joe Biden sought to assure Americans over the monkeypox outbreak, saying vaccines and treatments were available.
It was a change in tone from yesterday when he said ‘everyone’ should be concerned over the spread of the virus.
White House Covid response coordinator Dr Ashish Jha has warned the U.S. to brace for more monkeypox cases to be spotted in the near future.
Timeline of monkeypox cases in the U.S.
April 2003: A total of 47 people are found to have been infected with the virus after coming into contact with animals.
This was linked to a shipment of 800 rodents — including squirrels — from Ghana to Texas. Some of the infected animals were then moved to Illinois and housed near Prairie dogs. They passed on the virus to these animals, which then gave it to humans when they were rehomed.
July 2021: An individual in Texas is found to have been infected with monkeypox after returning to the U.S. from Nigeria.
A total of 200 people were monitored for infection, but after 21 days none had developed symptoms.
November 2021: An individual tested positive for the virus after returning to Maryland from Nigeria. They did not pass the virus on to others.
May 2022: A man is found to have been infected with the virus after returning to Massachusetts from Canada.
Four other cases are currently being probed in New York City, Florida and Utah. All are among men and linked to international travel.