With the world still in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of monkeypox cases across Europe – including, as of yesterday, in Northern Ireland – has naturally caused some alarm among populations weary after a two-year public-health emergency. The outbreak is certainly of concern – monkeypox is a potentially very serious disease and can be severe or even fatal for immunocompromised individuals in particular. Young children and pregnant women are also at higher risk.
Scientists seeking to explain the sudden spread in Europe of a relatively rare disease that occurs primarily in remote parts of central and west Africa have favoured two broad theories. One is the possibility that a mutation in the virus is allowing it to spread more efficiently. Another potential explanation is that population immunity derived from the smallpox vaccine, which was highly effective in preventing monkeypox infection, has been declining since the phasing out of smallpox vaccination in recent decades. Smallpox was eradicated in 1980.
There are some grounds for reassurance. Monkeypox, which can be spread from person to person through contact with bodily fluids and skin lesions of a monkeypox case, is not very infectious, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre points out. Most people recover within weeks without treatment. Unlike Covid-19, it is easily observed when somebody has it because those who are infected get a chickenpox-like rash on their hands and face. And there is a safe and effective vaccine, which can be used for ring vaccination, whereby close contacts of those who present with symptoms are immunised. Maria Van Kerkhove, the emerging disease lead for the World Health Organisation, said monkeypox was a “containable situation”.
Nonetheless, the outbreak underlines the need to invest in high-quality public health and disease control systems that can react quickly to new threats; maintaining agile contact tracing infrastructure and continuing to co-ordinate internationally on vaccine stocks and supply chains.