THE UK’s health security agency (UKHSA) has procured more than 20,000 doses of a smallpox vaccine made by Bavarian Nordic as cases of monkeypox rise in Europe and beyond, it said.
There are now 90 recorded cases in the UK, and eight additional cases have been detected in England, bringing the total there to 85.
There are three confirmed cases in Scotland, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.
The number of confirmed cases of monkeypox worldwide has reached 219, according to WHO.
Meanwhile, scientists said the virus may have been circulating unseen for several years.
The largest number of confirmed cases are in the UK, where health protection teams isolate people who test positive and their closest contacts and offer smallpox vaccinations.
The vaccine is being offered to identified close contacts of people diagnosed with monkeypox to reduce the risk of symptomatic infection and severe illness, UKHSA said in a Twitter post.
In Europe, the Danish company’s vaccine is approved only against smallpox, but is being used off-label for monkeypox, while in the US it has been cleared for use against both smallpox and monkeypox.
According to the WHO, the first generation of smallpox vaccines were up to 85 per cent effective in preventing monkeypox.
Prof David Heymann, who chairs a WHO expert group on infectious threats to global health, said it was possible the virus entered the UK two or three years ago and spread under the radar.
Between 2018 and 2019, four confirmed cases of monkeypox arrived in the UK, all recent travellers from Nigeria. Three further cases with similar travel history arrived in 2021.
“It could hypothetically be that the virus transmission amplified from this low level of transmission when by chance it entered the population that is at present amplifying transmission,” Heymann told The Guardian.
What is Monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a virus transmitted to humans from animals, with symptoms very similar to smallpox but less severe clinically.
In Africa, monkeypox has been found in many animals including rope squirrels, tree squirrels, Gambian poached rats, dormice as well as different species of monkeys and others.
The WHO however says human-to-human transmission is limited.
Symptoms in humans of monkeypox include lesions, eruptions on the face, palms or soles, scabs, fever, muscle ache and chills.
Human monkeypox was first identified in 1970 in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a nine-year-old boy in a region where smallpox had been eliminated two years earlier.
In the spring of 2003, cases were also confirmed in the US — the first time the disease surfaced outside Africa.
How is it transmitted?
Animal-to-human transmission can happen as a result of direct contact with the blood, bodily fluids, or cutaneous or mucosal lesions of infected animals.
Secondary or human-to-human transmission can happen through close contact with respiratory secretions, skin lesions of an infected person or recently contaminated objects.
Transmission via droplet respiratory particles usually requires prolonged face-to-face contact, putting health workers, family members and other close contacts of infected people at greater risk.
The WHO signalled that some of the cases confirmed recently in Britain surfaced among gay men.
But experts have warned it was too premature to establish a link.
How serious is it?
It is usually a self-limited disease with symptoms lasting from two to four weeks.
Severe cases occur more commonly among children and are related to the extent of virus exposure, patient health status and nature of complications.
The case-fatality ratio has varied but has remained between 0 and 10 percent in all registered infections.
Is there a treatment?
There is no specific treatment but vaccination against smallpox has been found to be about 85 percent effective in preventing monkeypox.
However, access to smallpox vaccines is now limited as the disease has been eradicated globally.