The monkey smallpox virus may have been spreading unnoticed in Europe for many years

The monkey smallpox virus, which has now been detected in hundreds of people in 26 countries, may have been quietly spreading for years before it suddenly appeared around the world, some scientists say.

Infectious disease experts and scientists in genetic laboratories are urgently looking for information to explain why the virus, which has been found in West Africa for half a century and has not usually spread rapidly from person to person, has been so bizarre and disturbing in the past. the moon. At a briefing on Wednesday, Dr. Rosamund Lewis, the World Health Organization’s technical director for monkey disease, said the infection may have gone unnoticed for some time. I don’t know if it’s weeks, months or years. ”

Mark Van Ranst, a professor of virology at the University of Leuven in Belgium, told NBC News that a sequence of his lab had identified genetic mutations in the virus, which were “limited” and “none of them smoked.”

“Everyone is interested in complete genomes to understand an important question: how long have these viruses been under the radar?” Van Ranst said. “I don’t think anyone believes it left Africa a few weeks ago.”

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh recently compiled samples from the epidemic and published their findings on May 30. The samples they studied came from a version of monkey disease that was detected in Singapore, Israel, Nigeria and the UK between 2017 and 2019.

Although investigators have since identified “unexpected numbers” of changes in the virus’s genetic code, some experts do not believe such changes explain the breadth of the current epidemic.

In Africa, most cases of smallpox have historically been caused by infected animals, such as rodents, but not by human-to-human transmission.

“The endemic pandemic from Africa may have entered the social and sexual spheres and then spread around the world with the help of major events such as the flight to Belgium,” he said. Amesh A. Adalja, senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health and Safety, said.

“Then,” Adalja added, “because it is sexually transmitted through close contact, many sores are mistaken for other sexually transmitted infections, which can delay diagnosis.”


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The vigilance of public health authorities, health professionals and individuals around the world has dramatically improved detection in recent weeks.

“When you start looking for a new disease in a population, you find more and more cases,” says the doctor. David Haymann, teacher on The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told NBC News that it previously led the World Health Organization’s program on emerging and other infectious diseases.

Heimann supported the theory that the virus could be present in some populations for several years, with the exception of 11 Central and West African countries where the virus has become endemic. The cases could spread secretly to people outside the global gay community, he said.

“Security isn’t looking at the wider, it’s just looking at the population,” he said.

Very mild symptoms of monkey smallpox

Infection, which can leave long-lasting scars on the body and cause painful sores, usually lasts for about three weeks. Most of the cases identified in Europe and the United States were mild – some were very sensitive, they were mistaken for other sexually transmitted infections – and were among gay, bisexual, and other men who had sex with men. Experts point out that physical contact is a major factor in the development of sexually transmitted infections.

Unlike the case of smallpox in Africa, some of the recent infections have led to “very, very mild” symptoms, probably involving only one citizen, Dr. Sebastian Pulin is an infectious disease specialist at St. Jerome Hospital in Montreal diagnosed According to NBC News, it is one of the first cases of the Canadian epidemic. “Doctors need to know that.”

In addition, smallpox usually begins with fever, but in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, no fever or other early signs have been observed before ulcers appear.

“For this reason, cases may not be confused with varicella zoster or sexually transmitted infections, such as common infections such as genital herpes or syphilis,” the CDC said in a study released Friday.

According to the World Health Organization, sixty-six people will die from the infection in 2022 in African countries. Nigeria has been battling its monkey disease epidemic since 2017 – it has served as an incubator for global spread.

There were no deaths in the current epidemic in Europe or the United States, but at least one person in the United States was hospitalized to treat severe pain from ulcers in the anal area, Captain. Jennifer McQueiston, deputy director of the CDC’s Highly Dangerous Pathogens and Pathology Division, said at a briefing on Friday.

McKuiston acknowledged that cases of the monkey smallpox virus had not been seen in the United States before, but said “not at all.” In the United States in 2021, two cases were identified – in July in Texas and in November in Maryland. Both recently visited Nigeria.

According to Van Ranst, the coming days will be crucial for disease control. According to the WHO, as of June 1, 643 confirmed cases were registered. If the number of cumulative cases by next week follows an exponential curve, possibly reaching 4,000, “it will not be controlled,” he said.

If instead the figure rises to 1,000, the epidemic could only spread linearly, which would be good for global surveillance of the virus, Van Ranst said.


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