After more than 1,600 cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) is collaborating with experts to adopt a new name for monkeypox, a viral infection that has spread to more than 30 countries, including Brazil.
The initiative comes after more than 30 scientists wrote last week of the “urgent need for a (name for the disease and the virus) that is neither discriminatory nor stigmatizing”.
For the group of researchers, who suggested the name hMPXV, there are also several incorrect and discriminatory references to the virus as being African.
The disease has killed 72 people in countries where it is considered endemic (permanently present in a region, with constant numbers for several years), such as rainforest areas in Central Africa and West Africa.
In the densely forested Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 1,200 cases have been reported this year alone and 57 deaths recorded (as of May 1, 2022), according to the WHO.
But so far there are no cases of deaths in the 32 countries recently affected by the disease, such as Brazil (2 cases) and the United Kingdom (470 cases).
Transmission occurs mainly when someone has close contact with an infected person. The virus can enter the body through skin lesions, through the respiratory system, or through the eyes, nose and mouth. After infection, it usually takes 5 to 21 days for symptoms to appear, which are usually mild and disappear on their own in about three weeks.
Public health emergency?
With the spread of the disease, the WHO will also discuss this month whether or not to classify it as a “public health emergency of international concern”, as happened with H1N1 (2009), polio (2014), zika (2016) , Ebola (2019) and Covid (January 2020).
“The monkeypox epidemic is unusual and worrisome. (…) Therefore, I have decided to convene the emergency committee linked to international health regulations next week to decide whether it actually represents a public health emergency of concern. international level,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
If this emergency is declared, what does it change in practice?
The WHO officially defines a state of emergency as an “extraordinary event that constitutes a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and potentially requires a coordinated international response”.
In cases such as covid-19, the recommendation becomes that health authorities around the world increase their monitoring of the disease and be ready to eventually adopt containment measures.
What makes the virus advance right now?
Monkeypox virus is in the same family as common smallpox, but less severe and prevalent, and so the chances of infecting large populations is considered low.
The virus was first identified in a captive monkey in the 1970s, and since then there have been sporadic outbreaks in Central and West African countries.
There has already been an outbreak in the US in 2003 — the first time the virus has been seen outside of Africa — with 81 cases reported but no deaths.
The biggest outbreak ever recorded was in 2017 in Nigeria: there were 172 suspected cases.
At the present time, it is unclear the reason behind the spread of monkeypox in Europe, North America and Australia.
One possibility is that the virus has changed in some way, but so far there is no evidence that a new variant is in circulation.
Another possibility is that, with the reduction in vaccination coverage for smallpox (which has been considered eradicated in the world since 1980), the virus has found favorable conditions to spread more than before.
The WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said he was concerned about the possibility of the virus advancing in the summer months on the continent, when there are more parties and agglomerations.
Peter Horby, director of the University of Oxford’s Institute for Pandemic Science, told BBC Radio 4 that an “unusual situation is under way, where it appears that the virus has been introduced (from abroad) but is now being transmitted within certain communities”.
The main message, Horby added, is that people with symptoms should “seek assistance, get a diagnosis and then isolate themselves.”
Monkeypox is usually a mild disease, according to the WHO, but severe cases can occur. In recent times, the fatality rate has been around 3% to 6%, but the explanation for this number is complex.
“Sometimes you see death rates as high as 10%. But these cases are difficult to understand because many of them have to do with being in areas with few resources, where they may not have access to care,” said the infectious disease expert and Pandemic Preparedness Amesh Adalja of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University.
There are two variants of the disease, known as West Africa and Central Africa — the current outbreak of monkeypox has been linked to the former.
“The good news is that the West African version of this monkeypox virus is less severe than the Central African one. So it is good news as fewer people are expected to develop serious illness with this variant,” he told the BBC. BBC Professor Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Melbourne.
How is monkeypox transmitted?
Monkeypox is spread when someone has close contact with an infected person. The virus can enter the body through skin lesions, through the respiratory system, or through the eyes, nose and mouth.
It is not a disease that spreads so easily, but it can infect in the following ways:
– When touching clothes, sheets and towels used by someone with skin lesions caused by the disease;
– When touching blisters or scabs on the skin of people with these lesions;
– By the coughing or sneezing of people with monkeypox.
So far, the virus has not been described as a sexually transmitted disease, but it can be passed on during sexual intercourse by the closeness between the people involved.
And the most recent cases in the UK have been seen in gay or bisexual men, something that has prompted the UK Health Safety Agency to urge men to pay attention to itchiness or skin lesions that seem unusual to them.
They were advised to contact their local sexual health services in case of any symptoms or concerns. But officials point out that anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, can be infected.
Infected animals such as monkeys, mice and squirrels can also transmit the virus.
What are the main symptoms?
After infection, it usually takes 5 to 21 days for the first symptoms to appear.
These symptoms include fever, headache, back or muscle pain, swollen lymph nodes, chills, and exhaustion.
And in this process, itching can appear, usually starting on the face and then spreading to other parts of the body, especially on the hands and sole of the foot.
The itch, which is often quite irritating and painful, changes and goes through different stages—much like chickenpox—before it forms a scab, which then falls off.
The infection usually clears up after 14 to 21 days.
In the UK, most infections so far are mild. But the disease can take on more severe forms, especially in young children, pregnant women and people with fragile immune systems. In West Africa, there have already been cases of deaths from the disease.
What is the treatment?
The best way to prevent outbreaks is with vaccination: the smallpox vaccine is able to prevent the vast majority of monkeypox cases.
Antiviral drugs can also help.
Generally, in mild cases, the infection passes on its own.
– This text was originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-61808537