The World Health Organization said Sunday that monkeypox constitutes a “moderate risk” to overall public health at global level after cases were reported in countries where the disease is not typically found.
“The public health risk could become high if this virus exploits the opportunity to establish itself as a human pathogen and spreads to groups at higher risk of severe disease such as young children and immunosuppressed persons,” WHO said.
Meanwhile, the sudden appearance of monkeypox at once in several countries where it is not endemic suggests undetected transmission for some time, WHO said.
Twenty-three countries that are not endemic for the virus have reported a total of 257 confirmed cases and 120 suspected cases to the WHO as of May 26, the agency said in a statement.
As of Thursday, Canada had reported 26 confirmed cases to the WHO, and another 25 to 35 suspected cases were under investigation, according to the agency’s latest disease update released Sunday.
The United Kingdom has confirmed 106 cases, and Portugal has confirmed 49 cases, while Spain has confirmed 20 cases and a further 64 suspected cases are still being investigated.
The agency added that it expects more cases to be reported as surveillance in endemic and non-endemic countries expands.
Monkeypox is an infectious disease that is usually mild, and is endemic in parts of western and central Africa. It is spread by close contact, so it can be relatively easily contained through measures such as self-isolation and hygiene.
“The vast majority of reported cases so far have no established travel links to an endemic area and have presented through primary care or sexual health services,” the UN agency said.
Based on current information, the WHO is not recommending any international travel restrictions at this time.
Vaccinating against monkeypox
The WHO said it will provide more guidance on case management and infection prevention, and the use of vaccines, in the coming days.
The monkeypox virus is closely related to the virus that causes smallpox, which was eradicated globally in 1980, and the smallpox vaccine can protect people from getting monkeypox.
Officials in Quebec and in some overseas jurisdictions have already announced plans to vaccinate people with the smallpox vaccine.
Quebec’s public health director Dr. Luc Boileau said Thursday that the province would offer the vaccine — which hasn’t been routinely offered in Canada for decades — to those at high risk of contracting the disease, such as those who have been in contact with confirmed cases.
Officials in France and the U.K. have also signalled their intention to vaccinate people, while the European Union is working on a common purchasing agreement for vaccines and antivirals against monkeypox.