GENEVA (AN) — With at least 200 cases of monkeypox reported by more than 20 nations, World Health Organization officials warned "it's an unusual situation" raising a lot of questions because they do not yet know why there has been such an upsurge in the disease transmitted from animals in the past weeks.
Top WHO officials say they believe the epidemic can be contained through a quick response and propose creating a global stockpile to more equitably distribute the few vaccines and drugs available to fight the zoonotic disease.
“What is important is just to see that this event is unusual,” Dr. Sylvie Briand, WHO’s director of pandemic and epidemic diseases, told a public briefing on Friday for WHO's 194 member nations. “Usually, we have no cases or very sporadic cases that are exported to non-endemic countries. But now we have more and more cases.”
Briand acknowledged there are many open questions over how the epidemic arose, including which animal it emerged from, but there is no evidence that monkeypox, an Orthopoxvirus virus from the same family as smallpox and other cowpox viruses, has mutated. Since the first recent case reported on May 7, she said, there have a high number of cases in non-endemic countries — more than 20 nations outside the nine African countries where it is endemic.
Few vaccines and drugs are available globally to fight monkeypox, but most cases result in non-life threatening symptoms such as body aches, chills, fatigue and fever. Some people develop a rash and lesions on their face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.
"The first sequencing of the virus shows that the strain is not different from the strains we can find in endemic countries and it’s probably more due to a change in human behavior," Briand said. “We are also investigating this and trying to understand the origin of this sudden outbreak of monkeypox in non-endemic countries."
'Every country may need access'
Despite the mystery, WHO believes “a good window of opportunity" exists to stop the transmission with existing medical countermeasures, vaccines and therapeutics, Briand said. “We think that if we put in place the right measures now, we probably can contain this easily."
A vaccine for monkeypox is approved in Canada and the United States, said Dr Rosamund Lewis, head of WHO’s smallpox department, and those nations could use them for vulnerable populations like health workers or families of patients. Smallpox countermeasures could be protective against monkeypox, she said, but there is a dearth of research on the subject.
“What we have been advised so far is that there is no need for mass vaccination, there is no need for large immunization campaigns," she said.
Nevertheless, the U.N. health agency will work with its member nations to create a stockpile so vaccines are distributed based on need and not the ability to pay, said Dr Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief. Such efforts with the COVID-19 pandemic have not worked as planned because of vaccine hoarding by rich nations.
Though mass vaccination would not be the aim of a vaccine stockpile to fight monkeypox, Ryan said that “we’re talking about providing vaccines for a targeted vaccination campaign, for targeted therapeutics. So the volumes don’t necessarily need to be big, but every country may need access to a small amount of vaccine.”