Monkeypox, a sometimes-serious illness that can be passed to animals and humans, is usually found in Central and West Africa. But the virus has now been seen far across from the continent. Though the virus is not often fatal and does not spread as easily as coronavirus, the new monkeypox cases are raising significant questions about how patients far from Africa have been infected.
On Friday, a WHO committee called the Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential is due to meet to discuss the cases. WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said that WHO was convening meetings “on a daily basis” with experts from affected countries and others in the global health community.
The move came as Germany, France and Belgium also confirmed their first cases of monkeypox, joining a growing list of countries where cases of the rare viral illness have popped up outside of the disease’s typical territory in recent days.
What is monkeypox, the rare virus now confirmed in the US and Europe?
The first case in Germany was registered in Bavaria on Thursday, according to the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology, a military research facility of the German Armed Forces.
“The Institute for Microbiology of the German Armed Forces in Munich has now also detected the monkeypox virus beyond doubt for the first time in Germany on 19 May 2022 in a patient with characteristic skin lesions,” read a statement from the medical service.
The patient is a 26-year-old man from Brazil who had been traveling in Germany, according to a statement from the Bavarian Health Ministry. The man had traveled through Portugal and Spain before entering Germany and had visited Düsseldorf and Frankfurt before reaching Munich, where he had been for around a week, according to the statement.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said Friday it was only a “matter of time” before monkeypox made its way to the country, according to state broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Lauterbach said he was confident that an outbreak could be contained on a virus that does not appear to transmit easily if authorities act quickly.
“We will now analyze the virus more closely and examine whether it involves a more contagious variant,” Lauterbach said, according to Reuters.
France’s Health Ministry confirmed the country’s first monkeypox case on Friday in the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris. A 29-year-old man is not in serious condition but is self-isolating at home, the agency said in a statement. Although the man had not recently traveled to a country where monkeypox is already spreading, health authorities have launched a full investigation into the case, according to the French Health Ministry.
In Belgium, officials at the Universitair Ziekenhuis Leuven hospital said they had confirmed two cases of monkeypox in the country with whole-genome sequencing.
“People who recognize injuries such as the one in this photo should contact their doctor,” virologist Marc Van Ranst wrote in a tweet on Friday morning, sharing photographs of monkeypox’s signature lesions.
A spokesperson for Belgium’s Agency for Care and Health told Reuters that the first infected person had been diagnosed in Antwerp. The person was not seriously ill and was now in isolation with their partner. Van Ranst wrote on Twitter that the second patient was a man who had been diagnosed in Flemish Brabant.
Flemish broadcaster VRTNWS reported Friday that though the two patients were diagnosed in different areas of the country, they may have attended the same party.
Belgian Minister of Health Frank Vandenbroucke said that the government was watching the situation closely. “Does that mean that we now have to fear a major outbreak here? We don’t think so, ”Vandenbroucke told VRTNWS. “But as always you have to use caution and foresight.”
Although most confirmed cases so far have been found in Europe, researchers in North America and Australia have also reported cases.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said Friday that the country has confirmed two cases of monkeypox and that “just under a couple of dozen” suspected cases are being investigated in Quebec and British Columbia. “We don’t know the extent the spread has occurred in Canada,” Tam told reporters at a news conference in Ottawa.
“So far, we do know that not many of these are connected to travel to Africa where the disease is normally seen, so this is unusual.”
Mylène Drouin, Montreal’s public health director, said Thursday that the first suspected cases of monkeypox in the area were reported on May 12 by clinics specializing in sexually transmitted diseases, though symptoms had begun weeks earlier.
She said that the suspected cases are in men between the ages of 30 and 55 who have had sex with other men. She said that most of the cases have not been severe and that the disease is not sexually transmitted but is spread through close contact.
Canadian public health officials said laboratories have not yet completed genetic sequencing of the samples and that one question is the role of asymptomatic transmission. They said the risk to the overall population is believed to be low, but they stressed a need to be open-minded about the possibility that the virus has changed or evolved in some way.
“The fact that it’s now appearing in several countries in Europe as well as here in Canada – we need to learn more about it,” Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Friday. “Has it evolved? Has it changed to something different in terms of transmission and so on? ”