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Why monkeypox now a ‘moderate’ risk to the world’s health

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The arm and torso of a patient whose skin displayed a number of lesions due to what had been an active case of monkeypox.

This 1997 image provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the right arm and torso of a patient whose skin displayed a number of lesions due to what had been an active case of monkeypox. As health authorities in Europe and elsewhere roll out vaccines and drugs to stamp out the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa, in 2022, some doctors are acknowledging an ugly reality: The resources to slow the disease’s spread have long been available, just not to the Africans who have dealt with it for decades.

Centers for Disease Control via Associated Press

Monkeypox currently poses a “moderate” public health risk globally, according to a new analysis by the World Health Organization, thanks to the spread of the virus beyond Africa to countries such as the United States, which has reported 10 cases, including two in Utah.

That risk level could rise, however, if monkeypox begins spreading to young children, the immunosuppressed and others considered at higher risk of severe disease, the WHO said in a report issued Sunday, warning “a large part of the population is vulnerable to monkeypox virus” because smallpox vaccinations ended decades ago.

What’s concerning the international agency is “the sudden appearance and wide geographic scope of many sporadic cases indicates that widespread human-to-human transmission is already underway, and the virus may have been circulating unrecognized for several weeks or longer.”

Monkeypox is an orthopoxvirus, a family of viruses that includes smallpox, which was declared eradicated by the WHO in 1980. There have been 257 cases confirmed and around another 120 suspected cases of monkeypox in nearly two dozen countries, mainly among men who have sex with men, the report stated.

Those numbers are already heading up, with another 71 monkeypox cases reported Monday in England, according to The Guardian, bringing the total number of cases in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to 179, an increase from the 106 reported by the WHO.

The WHO report, which concluded that “all efforts should be made to avoid unnecessary stigmatization of individuals and communities potentially affected by monkeypox,” also spelled out that anyone who has direct contact with an infected person can get the virus, including health care workers and family members.

The virus can also be transmitted through contact with bedding, clothing, utensils or other contaminated materials. Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, exhaustion and swollen lymph nodes, along with a rash that turns into fluid-filled pustules, which eventually scab over and fall off.

The report stated there’s a “high likelihood” more cases will surface “with unidentified chains of transmission, including potentially in other population groups and in other countries, although the WHO also states “at present, the risk for the general public appears to be low.”

When the Salt Lake County Department of Health announced probable cases of the virus last week in two adults living in the same household, officials stressed they presented no risk to the general public and that none of their contacts had high-risk exposure to the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later confirmed the men had monkeypox. Besides Utah, the virus has been identified in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia and Washington. Nearly all of the cases involve men, many of whom traveled internationally.

The Salt Lake County cases were diagnosed after the individuals returned from an unidentified European country with a monkeypox outbreak and began showing symptoms. Both remain in isolation and are expected to recover fully, a county health department spokesman said.