The World Health Organization is urging people who may have been exposed to or at risk of monkeypox to get vaccinated against the disease as a preventive measure.
Since it declared monkeypox a global health threat last week, the WHO says the disease has continued to spread around the world, with cases topping 16,000 in at least 75 countries.
The WHO says the outbreak is mainly concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners. It warns against stigmatizing a whole group of people, as this could cause the outbreak to accelerate exponentially by driving the disease underground.
The WHO technical leader on monkeypox, Rosamund Lewis, says the outbreak can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups. She says mass vaccination is not required, but the WHO recommends vaccination for those who have been exposed or are at risk.
“When someone is vaccinated, it takes several weeks for the immune response to be generated by the body. So, it is not something you can be vaccinated one day and be protected the next. You need to give it some time,” Lewis said. “So, the folks we are recommending to be vaccinated right now are anyone who has exposure, a contact with someone who may have been confirmed to have monkeypox. And so, that could be family members. It could be other close contacts.”
She says even children are not immune from getting the disease. Between 80 and 90 cases of monkeypox in children have been reported in several countries, mostly in households where someone was infected.
The monkeypox virus is spread from person to person through close bodily contact. It can cause a range of symptoms, including painful sores. Those at higher risk for the disease or complications include women who are pregnant, children and people who are immunocompromised.
European countries have the highest number of confirmed cases. Although monkeypox is endemic in Africa, where it has been present since 1970, the reported caseload is relatively low. For example, Nigeria reports 101 cases, and the Democratic Republic of Congo has confirmed 163 cases out of more than 2,000 suspected cases.
Lewis says the number of suspected cases in the DRC is high because the country’s ability to confirm cases through laboratory testing is limited. She says testing needs to be supported and ramped up.
“Suspected cases may be other things. They may even be measles. They may be chickenpox. There is no vaccine for chickenpox being used in that environment. So, it is critically important to support countries to access testing. That is one of the most important things that WHO is trying to do right now,” she said. “At the same time, in the global reports, what we are reporting are confirmed and probable cases.”
For now, no travel-related monkeypox restrictions are in place. However, the WHO recommends anyone with signs or symptoms compatible with the monkeypox virus should avoid travel and isolate for the duration of the illness.