Monkey pox, a sometimes serious disease that can be transmitted to animals and humans, is commonly found in Central and West Africa. But the virus has now been seen far across the continent. Although the virus is not often fatal and does not spread as easily as coronavirus, the new monkey cases raise urgent questions about how patients appear to have been infected.
On Friday, a WHO committee called the Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential will meet to discuss the issues. WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said the WHO convenes meetings “on a daily basis” with experts from affected countries and others in the global health community.
The move came as Germany, France and Belgium also confirmed their first cases of monkey pox, joining a growing list of countries where cases of the rare viral disease have emerged in recent days.
What are monkey pox, the rare virus now confirmed in the US and Europe?
The first case in Germany was recorded in Bavaria on Thursday, according to the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology, a military research facility under German armed forces.
“The Institute of Microbiology of the German Armed Forces in Munich has now also detected the smallpox virus for the first time in Germany on 19 May 2022 in a patient with characteristic skin lesions,” it read in a statement from the medical service.
The patient is a 26-year-old man from Brazil who had been traveling in Germany, according to a statement from the Bavarian Ministry of Health. The man had traveled through Portugal and Spain before entering Germany, and had visited Düsseldorf and Frankfurt before reaching Munich, where he had been for about a week, according to the statement.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said Friday that it was only a matter of time before monkey pox found its way to the country, according to state television Deutsche Welle. Lauterbach said he was convinced an outbreak could be contained on a virus that does not appear to transmit easily if authorities act quickly.
“We will now analyze the virus more closely and investigate whether it involves a more contagious variant,” Lauterbach said according to Reuters.
France’s health ministry on Friday confirmed the country’s first monkey poop case in the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris. A 29-year-old man is not in serious condition but is self-isolating in the home, the agency said in a statement. Although the man had not recently traveled to a country where monkey pox is already spreading, according to the French Ministry of Health, the health authorities have launched a full investigation into the case.
In Belgium, officials at the Universitair Ziekenhuis Leuven hospital said they had confirmed two cases of monkey smallpox in the country with whole-genome sequencing.
“People who recognize injuries like the one in this picture should contact their doctor,” virologist Marc Van Ranst wrote in a tweet Friday morning, where they share photographs of monkeys’ characteristic lesions.
A spokesman for the Belgian Agency for Care and Health told Reuters that the first infected person had been diagnosed in Antwerp. The person was not seriously ill and was now in isolation with his partner. Van Ranst wrote on Twitter that the other patient was a man who had been diagnosed in Flemish Brabant.
The Flemish television station VRTNWS reported on Friday that although the two patients were diagnosed in different areas of the country, they may have attended the same party.
Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said the government was following the situation closely. “Does that mean we now have to fear a major outbreak here? We do not think so, ”Vandenbroucke told VRTNWS. “But as always, you need to exercise caution and foresight.”
Although most confirmed cases have so far been found in Europe, researchers in North America and Australia have also reported cases.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s head of public health, said Friday that the country has confirmed two cases of monkey pox and that “just under a few dozen” suspected cases are being investigated in Quebec and British Columbia. “We do not know to what extent the spread has taken place in Canada,” Tam told reporters at a press conference in Ottawa.
“So far, we know that not many of these are associated with traveling to Africa, where the disease is usually seen, so it is unusual.”
Mylène Drouin, Montreal’s director of public health, said Thursday that the first suspected cases of monkey pox in the area were reported on May 12 by clinics specializing in sexually transmitted diseases, even though the symptoms had begun weeks earlier.
She said the suspected cases are in men between the ages of 30 and 55 who have had sex with other men. She said most of the cases have not been serious and that the disease is not sexually transmitted but spread through close contact.
Canadian public health officials said laboratories have not yet completed genetic sequencing of the samples and that one question is the role of asymptomatic transmission. They said the risk to the overall population is thought to be low, but they stressed a need to be open-minded about the possibility that the virus has changed or evolved in some way.
“The fact that it is now appearing in several countries in Europe as well as here in Canada – we need to learn more about it,” Howard Njoo, Canada’s Deputy Chief of Public Health, said on Friday. “Has it evolved? Has it changed to anything else in terms of transmission and so on?”