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This electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a monkeypox virion, obtained from a sample associated with the prairie dog outbreak. Image Credit: AP

Washington: A case of the rare and potentially dangerous monkey pox has been confirmed in the US, with two news cases appearing in the UK, bringing the total number there to nine.

The infected Massachusetts man had recently travelled to Canada and is now receiving treatment in hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Department of Health said the case poses no risk to the public.

It’s the first reported infection in the US so far this year and follows reports of scattered cases in Europe. In addition, health officials in Canada are investigating up to 13 cases in Montreal, Radio-Canada reported.

In the UK the Health Security Agency said recent cases were “predominantly in gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men.”

“We are particularly urging men who are gay and bisexual to be aware of any unusual rashes or lesions and to contact a sexual health service without delay if they have concerns,” the agency said.

What is monkey pox?

Monkeypox is a rare, usually mild infection, typically caught from infected wild animals in parts of Africa. It was first discovered in 1958 in monkeys kept for research “- hence the name “- with the first human case recorded in 1970, according to the CDC. The disease is a relative of smallpox, causing a rash that often begins on the face, according to the UK’s NHS website.

How can you catch it?

Monkeypox can be caught from a bite by an infected animal, or by touching its blood, body fluids or fur. It’s thought to be spread by rodents, such as rats, mice and squirrels. It’s also possible to catch the disease by eating meat from an infected animal that has not been cooked properly.

It’s very unusual to catch monkey pox from a human, because it doesn’t spread easily between people. But it is possible to spread the disease through touching clothing, bedding or towels used by someone with the rash. The disease can also be transmitted by touching monkey pox skin blisters or scabs, or getting too close to coughs and sneezes from an infected person.

What are the symptoms of monkey pox?: If you get infected with monkey pox, it usually takes between five to 21 days for the first symptoms to appear. These include a fever, a headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen glands, shivering and exhaustion.

A rash typically appears one to five days after experiencing these symptoms. The rash is sometimes confused with chickenpox, because it starts as raised spots which turn into small scabs filled with fluid. The symptoms usually clear up within two to four weeks and scabs falls off.

Image Credit: Reuters

What do the experts say

As such, experts have warned of wider transmission if cases have gone unreported.

The UK Health Security Agency’s alert also highlighted that the recent cases were predominantly among men who self-identified as gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men, and advised those groups to be aware.

Scientists are now carrying out genomic sequencing to see if the viruses are linked, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said this week.

“Historically, there have been very few cases exported. It has only happened eight times in the past before this year,” said Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said it was “highly unusual”.

Why now?

One possible scenario behind the rise in cases is increased travel as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.

“My working theory would be that there’s a lot of it about in west and central Africa, travel has resumed, and that’s why we are seeing more cases,” said Whitworth.

Monkeypox puts virologists on the alert because it is in the smallpox family, although it causes less serious illness.

Smallpox was eradicated by vaccination in 1980, and the shot has since been phased out. But it also protects against monkey pox, and so the winding down of vaccination campaigns has led to a jump in monkey pox cases in areas where the disease is endemic, according to Anne Rimoin, an epidemiology professor at UCLA in California.

She said urgent investigation of the new cases was important as “they could suggest a novel means of spread or a change in the virus, but this is all to be determined”.

Experts urged people not to panic.

“This isn’t going to cause a nationwide epidemic like Covid did, but it’s a serious outbreak of a serious disease “ and we should take it seriously,” said Whitworth.

Can monkey pox kill you?

Studies in central Africa, where people have less access to quality health care, show the disease kills as many as one in 10 infected people, according to the World Health Organisation. However, most patients recover within a few weeks.

Is there a cure?

Patients will usually need to stay in a specialist hospital so infection doesn’t spread and general symptoms can be treated. There is one vaccine and one specific treatment — SIGA Technologies’ Tecovirimat, a drug usually sold under the brand name Tpoxx — but they are not yet widely available.