LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization’s chief for Europe warned Friday that monkeypox cases in the region have tripled in the past two weeks and urged countries to do more to ensure that the rare disease does not take root on the continent.
And African health authorities said they are treating the spreading monkeypox outbreak as an emergency, asking rich countries to share limited supplies of vaccines to avoid equity problems seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The head of the WHO in Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, said in a statement that further efforts were needed despite the UN health agency’s decision last week that the escalating outbreak did not yet warrant being declared. a global health emergency.
“Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn the race around to reverse the continued spread of this disease,” Kluge said.
To date, more than 5,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported from 51 countries around the world that normally don’t report the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kluge said the number of infections in Europe represents around 90% of the global total, with 31 countries in the WHO European region having identified cases.
Kluge said data reported to the WHO shows that 99% of cases have been in men, the majority in men who have sex with men. But he said there were now “small numbers” of cases among household contacts, including children. Most people reported symptoms including rash, fever, fatigue, muscle pain, vomiting, and chills.
Scientists warn that anyone who is in close physical contact with someone who has monkeypox or with their clothing or bedding is at risk of becoming infected. Vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women are thought to be more likely to experience serious illness.
About 10% of patients were hospitalized for treatment or isolation, and one person was admitted to an intensive care unit. No deaths have been reported.
Kluge said the problem of stigmatization in some countries could make some people wary of seeking medical care and said the WHO was working with partners, including organizers of gay pride events.
In the UK, which has the largest outbreak of monkeypox outside of Africa, authorities have noted that the disease is spreading in “defined sexual networks of homosexuals, bisexuals or men who have sex with men”. British health authorities said there were no signs to suggest sustained transmission beyond those populations.
A top adviser to the WHO said in May that the rise in cases in Europe was likely linked to sexual activity by men at two rave parties in Spain and Belgium.
Ahead of gay pride events in the UK this weekend, London’s top public health doctor asked people with symptoms of monkeypox, such as swollen glands or blisters, to stay home.
In Africa, however, the WHO says that based on detailed data from Ghana, monkeypox cases were almost evenly split between men and women, and no spread among men who have sex with men has been detected.
The director of the WHO in Europe, Kluge, also said that the acquisition of vaccines “must apply the principles of equity”.
The main vaccine used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox and the European Medicines Agency said this week it was beginning to assess whether it should be licensed for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.
Countries like the UK and Germany have already started vaccinating people at high risk for monkeypox; the UK recently expanded its immunization program to mostly gay and bisexual men who have multiple sexual partners and are thought to be the most vulnerable.
Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond parts of central and western Africa, where it has been sickening people for decades, is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.
To date, there have been around 1,800 suspected cases of monkeypox in Africa, including more than 70 deaths, but only 109 have been laboratory confirmed. Lack of laboratory diagnosis and weak surveillance means many cases go undetected.
“This particular outbreak for us means an emergency,” said Ahmed Ogwell, acting director of the African Centers for Disease Control.
The WHO says monkeypox has spread to African countries where it has not been seen before, including South Africa, Ghana and Morocco. But more than 90% of the continent’s infections are in the Congo and Nigeria, according to WHO Africa director Dr. Moeti Matshidiso.
Vaccines have never been used to stop monkeypox outbreaks in Africa; officials have relied primarily on contact tracing and isolation.
The WHO noted that, similar to last year’s fight over COVID-19 vaccines, countries with supplies of monkeypox vaccines are not yet sharing them with Africa.
“We don’t have any donations that have been offered to (poorer) countries,” said Fiona Braka, who leads the WHO’s emergency response team in Africa. “We know that those countries that do have some stocks, they are reserving them mainly for their own populations.”
Matshidiso said the WHO was in talks with manufacturers and countries with reservations to see if they could be shared.
“We would like to see global attention on monkeypox act as a catalyst to defeat this disease once and for all in Africa,” he said Thursday.