Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with monkeypox virus. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The World Health Organization said Sunday that 780 laboratory-confirmed monkeypox cases had been reported to it from 27 non-endemic countries, while maintaining that the global risk level was moderate.

The WHO said the 780 figure, for cases from May 13 to Thursday, was probably an underestimate due to limited epidemiological and laboratory information.

"It is highly likely that other countries will identify cases and there will be further spread of the virus," the UN health agency added.

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Few hospitalisations have been reported, apart from patients being isolated.

The WHO listed the non-endemic countries reporting the most cases as Britain (207), Spain (156), Portugal (138), Canada (58) and Germany (57).

Besides Europe and North America, cases have also been reported - in single figures - in Argentina, Australia, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

One case of monkeypox in a non-endemic country is considered an outbreak.

"Some countries are reporting that new generations of cases are no longer appearing only among known contacts of previously confirmed cases, suggesting that chains of transmission are being missed through undetected circulation of the virus," the WHO said.

"Although the current risk to human health and for the general public remains low, the public health risk could become high if this virus exploits the opportunity to establish itself in non-endemic countries as a widespread human pathogen," it said in a disease outbreak update.

"WHO assesses the risk at the global level as moderate considering this is the first time that many monkeypox cases and clusters are reported concurrently in non-endemic and endemic countries."

Atypical cases

Most reported cases so far have been presented through sexual health or other health services and have mainly involved men who have sex with men, said the WHO.

The organisation said many cases were not presenting with the classical clinical picture for monkeypox: some have described having pustules appear before symptoms such as fever, and having lesions at different stages of development - both of which are atypical.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with monkeypox virus, which originates in wild animals like rodents and primates, and then spreads to people.

It’s usually a mild viral infection. The virus belongs to the same family as the smallpox (Orthopoxvirus genus in the family Poxviridae). This genus also includes variola virus (which causes smallpox), vaccinia virus (used in the smallpox vaccine), and cowpox virus.

How can you get infected with monkeypox?

The virus enters the body through:

  • Broken skin (even if not visible)
  • Respiratory tract, or the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth)
  • A bite by an infected animal
  • Touching its blood, body fluids or fur.
  • Eating meat from an infected animal that has not been cooked properly could expose a person to the virus
  • Touching clothing, bedding or towels used by someone with the rash.
  • Touching monkeypox skin blisters or scabs, or getting too close to coughs and sneezes from an infected person.

It is thought to be spread by rodents, such as rats, mice and squirrels. Key point: Human-to-human transmission is possible.

Are there drugs or vaccines specifically against monkeypox?

Currently, there’s no monkeypox-specific drugs or vaccines. In the past, smallpox vaccines had been used to curb monkeypox viral transmission.

Was there a previous outbreak of monkeypox?

In 2003, a monkeypox outbreak was recorded in the US. It was traced back to imported exotic animals. In that outbreak, 71 people in 6 US states contracted monkeypox.

Is there a common pattern of transmission?

It's not clear yet as to how people in those clusters in four continents were exposed to monkeypox.  CDC is urging healthcare providers to be alert for patients who have rash illnesses consistent with monkeypox, regardless of whether they have travel or specific risk factors for monkeypox and regardless of gender or sexual orientation.()

(With inputs from AFP, Reuters)