A day after President Joe Biden cautioned that monkeypox—a viral infection spreading around the world—is something “everybody should be concerned about,” a leading adviser to the World Health Organization called the outbreak a “random event” that might be explained by sexual activity at two recent raves in Europe.
Dr. David Heymann told the Associated Press that the spread of the disease was likely to have been sexually transmitted among men at raves held in Spain and Belgium. Monkeypox had not previously caused widespread outbreaks beyond Africa, where it is endemic in animals, but in recent weeks it has spilled over the borders into several other countries.
“We know monkeypox can spread when there is close contact with the lesions of someone who is infected, and it looks like sexual contact has now amplified that transmission,” Heymann told AP.
This new theory departs from the disease’s typical pattern of spread in central and western Africa, where people are primarily infected by animals like wild rodents and primates, AP reports.
According to health officials, most of the known cases in Europe have been among men who have sex with men, but scientists say it will be difficult to determine whether the spread is being driven by sex itself or simply close contact. Anyone can be infected with monkeypox through close contact with a sick person—or their clothing or bedsheets.
“By nature, sexual activity involves intimate contact, which one would expect to increase the likelihood of transmission, whatever a person’s sexual orientation and irrespective of the mode of transmission,” Mike Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, told AP.
To date, WHO has reported more than 90 cases of monkeypox in a dozen countries including the United States, Britain, Spain, Israel, France, Switzerland, Australia, and Denmark. Although there has been only one confirmed U.S. case—a Massachusetts man who was diagnosed last week—but health officials have raised the alarm that case numbers may soon increase. According to the WHO’s website, there are potentially more confirmed cases in the U.S.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said in a statement on Friday that it is closely monitoring the situation though no cases have been detected.
According to AP, Germany has four confirmed cases linked to exposure at “party events… where sexual activity took place” in Spain’s Canary Islands and in Berlin.
Madrid’s senior health official announced Monday that the Spanish capital had 30 confirmed cases and told AP that authorities are investigating possible connections between a recent Gay Pride event in the Canary Islands, which drew some 80,000 people, as well as cases at a Madrid sauna.
So far, the monkeypox cases have been mild, with no deaths reported. Most infections typically last two to four weeks and cause flu-like illnesses and lesions on the face or genitals.
Vaccines against smallpox, a related disease, are effective in preventing monkeypox and some antiviral drugs are being developed. In recent years, monkeypox has been fatal in up to 6 percent of infections.
At a public session on Monday, WHO officials described the outbreak as “containable” and cautioned against stigmatizing affected groups, explaining that monkeypox can infect anyone.
Heymann told AP that the disease was unlikely to cause widespread transmission.
“This is not COVID,” he said. “We need to slow it down, but it does not spread in the air and we have vaccines to protect against it.”
He added that studies should be conducted promptly to determine if the disease could be spread by people without symptoms and that populations at risk should take precautions to protect themselves.
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