Expert team prepares for possible arrival of monkeypox in Ireland

Nineteen countries – including the UK – are now reporting cases of the disease

A team is being set up to deal with the prospect of monkeypox infections arriving into Ireland, public health specialist Dr Derval Igoe has said.

A number of professional groups will be involved in the management team including the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), the National Immunisation Office and the National Virus Reference Laboratory.

There have been no reported cases of the disease in Ireland to date.

However, the infectious disease has been reported in at least 14 countries including 19 cases in the United Kingdom.

Dr Igoe of the HPSC has said a management team has been established to prepare for the "eventuality" of monkeypox arriving in Ireland.

"It is always better to be prepared," she told RTÉ radio's Morning Ireland.

To date there have been no deaths worldwide and only two hospitalisations with the infection which can be spread through droplet infection (coughing) and skin-to-skin contact including sexual transmission.

Symptoms are usually mild and patients recover without medical intervention, said Dr Igoe.

The “flu like” symptoms include a cough, swollen lymph glands and a rash on the face and body which starts with spots, then blisters which then crust over and heal, she explained.

The cases already identified in Europe did not have a direct link with Africa, and the majority were young men who had been identified through sexual health clinics with localised rashes and general symptoms.

The immunocompromised and those with young children were also at risk.

There were no links with previous cases and surveillance was underway around the world.

It appeared there had been some cases of “silent transmission” she said, where patients were unaware they were infected.

It was possible that some cases would be seen in Ireland which was why the management team had been set up.

It was important for anyone experiencing the symptoms to isolate (for 21 days) and identify their contacts, she said.

Dr Igoe also said it was important for the message about caution to be delivered in a suitable way to all the population. Anyone experiencing symptoms should also alter their GP or sexual health clinic.

Transmission

Assistant professor of virology at Trinity College Dublin Dr Kim Roberts said it was unusual that the outbreak has spread over so many countries. In the past there had been isolated outbreaks, but they had usually been confined to one or two countries.

Dr Roberts cautioned that monkeypox is not like Covid-19. It is not as infectious and has a much longer incubation period in some cases of nearly three weeks.

This allows for easier contact tracing as the virus does not jump from person to person within two to three days like Covid-19.

Monkeypox has some similarities to smallpox – a disease which killed hundreds of millions of people worldwide before it was eradicated worldwide in 1980 – but is far less dangerous.

The current strain, the West African strain of monkeypox, has a low mortality rate. It is easier to identify and easier to suppress transmission changes.

“We will learn a lot about how widespread this outbreak will be in the coming weeks. There is no need to panic,” she said.

“We can expect that numbers will go up, but they will then fall sharply when public health measures take effect.”

Queens University Belfast based virologist Dr Connor Bamford said poxviruses such as monkeypox are "vaccine preventable" even after infection.

However, he cautioned that the eradication of smallpox has left space for another related infection and therefore pox viruses are an “obvious threat”.