Some prominent infectious disease experts are pushing for faster action from global health authorities to contain a growing monkeypox outbreak that has spread to at least 20 countries.
They are arguing that governments and the World Health Organization should not repeat the early missteps of the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed the detection of cases, helping the virus spread.
While monkeypox is not as transmissible or dangerous as COVID, these scientists say, there needs to be clearer guidance on how a person infected with monkeypox should isolate, more explicit advice on how to protect people who are at risk, and improved testing and contact tracing.
If this becomes endemic, we will have another nasty disease and many difficult decisions to take
"If this becomes endemic (in more countries), we will have another nasty disease and many difficult decisions to take," said Isabelle Eckerle, a professor at the Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases in Switzerland.
The WHO is considering whether the outbreak should be assessed as a potential public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), an official told Reuters. A WHO determination that an outbreak constitutes a global health emergency - as it did with COVID or Ebola - would help accelerate research and funding to contain a disease.
"It is always under consideration, but no emergency committee as yet (on monkeypox)," Mike Ryan, director of the WHO's health emergencies programme, said on the sidelines of the agency's annual meeting in Geneva.
However, experts say it is unlikely the WHO would reach such a conclusion soon, because monkeypox is a known threat the world has tools to fight. Discussing whether to set up an emergency committee, the body that recommends declaring a PHEIC, is just part of the agency's routine response, WHO officials said.
• Mexico confirmed first case on Saturday
• Ireland has confirmed its first case on Saturday.
• Australia first case was reported on May 20
• Austria confirmed its first case on May 22.
• Belgium detected two cases on May 20.
• Czech Republic detected its first case on May 24.
• Denmark confirmed a second case on May 24, a day after the first.
• Finland confirmed its first case on May 27.
• France's number of confirmed cases rose to five on May 25.
• Germany has confirmed three cases, with the first registered on May 20.
• Italy has confirmed nine cases by May 26. It detected its first case on May 19.
• The Netherlands reported its first case on May 20. It has since confirmed "several" more patients, without stating the exact number.
• Portugal confirmed 16 new cases on May 27, bringing the total to 74.
• Slovenia confirmed its first case on May 24.
• Spain confirmed 25 new cases on May 26, bringing the total to 84.
• Sweden confirmed its first case on May 19.
• Switzerland reported its first confirmed case on May 21.
• UK detected 14 new cases in England on May 24, taking the total of identified cases to 70.
• Israel confirmed its first case on May 21.
• UAE detected its first case on May 24, state news agency WAM reported.
• Argentina reported its first suspected case on May 23.
• Canada reported 10 new infections on May 27, bringing its total to 25.
• US confirmed nine additional cases in seven states on May 26. The total number of infections is up at 11 since the first infection was discovered on May 18.
Eckerle called for the WHO to encourage countries to put more coordinated and stringent isolation measures in place even without an emergency declaration. She worries that talk of the virus being mild, as well as the availability of vaccines and treatments in some countries, "potentially leads to lazy behaviour from public health authorities." NOT THE SAME AS COVID More than 300 suspected and confirmed cases of monkeypox, a usually mild illness that spreads through close contact, causing flu-like symptoms and a distinctive rash, have been reported this month.
Most have been in Europe rather than in the Central and West African countries where the virus is endemic. No deaths have been reported in the current outbreak.
However, global health officials have expressed alarm over the growing outbreak in non-endemic countries. The WHO has said it expects numbers to rise as surveillance increases.
According to the research, one of the UK's seven previous cases - a man in his 40s, who caught monkeypox in Nigeria before being hospitalized in the UK - still tested positive 76 days after first falling ill, Daily Mail reported. The man, who wasn't identified, was given the all clear and sent home from hospital a few weeks after being struck down with the virus.
Six weeks later, the first time after his illness, his virus came back, the doctors claimed.
'We are making the same mistake'
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, wrote on Twitter that monkeypox was different to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus, but "we are making some of the same mistakes with regard to responding decisively with the tools at hand." On Friday, the WHO reiterated that the monkeypox virus is containable with measures including the quick detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing.
People who are infected - and in some cases their close contacts - are advised to isolate for 21 days, but it is not clear to what extent people would adhere to such a long time away from work or other commitments. The lab capacity to test for monkeypox is also not yet widely established, said Eckerle, meaning rapid diagnosis can be difficult.
• Avoid physical contact with infected individuals and do not share personal items such as towels or bed linen.
• Wear gloves and the necessary personal protective equipment when caring for confirmed Monkeypox patients.
• Wash hands regularly.
• If having non vegetarian food, make sure it is cooked well.
• Wear protective gloves and clothing when approaching sick animals.
Mass vaccination is not considered necessary but some countries, including Britain and France, are offering vaccines to healthcare workers and close contacts.
Other experts say the current response is proportionate and that deeming monkeypox a global health emergency and declaring a PHEIC would be inappropriate at this stage.
"This is reserved for threats with the highest level of risk based on infectivity, severity and international risk of escalation," said Dale Fisher, chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and a professor of medicine in Singapore.
Beyond labels, experts said the most important lesson of the last two years is that preventing pandemics once they have started spreading is too late.
"It is always disappointing when the world wakes up to a new disease only when it hits high-income countries," said Piero Olliaro, a professor of poverty-related infectious diseases at Oxford University and monkeypox expert.
To prepare for pandemics, "you have to do that where the diseases are now," he said.
Countries should take right measures: WHO
The World Health Organisation on Friday said that countries should take the right measures to contain Monkeypox cases easily and also share data about their vaccine stockpiles.
"We don't know the extent of the disease. But as I said, we as a country should be more vigilant, so that we detect more cases. We think that if we put in place the right measure now, we probably can contain this easily. So that's why, we are making this briefing today and we are trying to raise the awareness because we are at the very, very beginning and it's we have a good window of opportunity to stop the transmission now," said Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness.
On the risk to the community spread, she said, "We are afraid that it will be spread in the community but currently it is very hard to assess this risk."
"We have a number of cases in many countries more than 20 in a few days and we have also many unknowns about this disease because we don't know if this unusual situation is due to a virus change. It doesn't seem so because of first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strain we can find in endemic countries and it's probably more due to a change in human behaviour. But we are also investigating this and trying to understand the origin of this sudden outbreak of monkeypox in non-endemic countries," said Sylvie Briand on the spread of monkeypox in non-endemic countries.
"There is also much uncertainty about the future and this disease because we don't know if this transmission will stop. What we have seen in endemic countries as usually we have self-limiting outbreaks, and so we hope it will be exactly the same with the current one," she added.
According to WHO, Monkeypox is usually a self-limited disease and typically lasts 2 to 4 weeks. It may be severe in children, pregnant women or persons with immune suppression due to other conditions. The incubation period is usually 6 to 13 days but it can be longer from 5 to 21 days.
Typical symptoms include fever headache, muscle ache backache and fatigue and swollen lymph nodes and then it's followed by skin rashes and or lesions.
Inputs from Reuters, AFP, ANI and APP