Monkeypox may have been circulating in the UK for years: scientists

Scientists point out that monkeypox evolved while infecting humans.

Photo: Courtesy of the CDC/Getty Images

Public health officials have confirmed seven more cases of monkeypox in Englandbringing the UK total to 78, as scientists said the virus may have been circulating unseen for several years.

The sudden increase in monkeypox, usually found in West and Central Africa, has been reported in at least 20 countries in the last monthwith more than 200 confirmed cases and dozens more under investigation.

This is the first time the disease has spread in the community outside of Africa.with all of the above cases associated with travel to regions where the virus is endemic or with imported animals harboring the virus.

The largest number of confirmed cases is in the UK, where health protection teams are isolating people who test positive and their closest contacts and offering smallpox vaccines, which are cross-protective against monkeypox. . A substantial proportion of cases are among men who have sex with men (MSM).

Monkeypox may have been in Europe undetected

As efforts to contain the outbreak continue, scientists are investigating how the disease came to break out in so many countries in such a short time. Many suspect that monkeypox was circulating at low levels, undetected, in the UK or Europe. for several years before it hit the MSM community and blew up.

Professor David Heymann, who chairs a World Health Organization think tank on infectious threats to global health, told The Guardian it was possible the virus entered the UK two or three years ago and spread without being detected. detected.

Between 2018 and 2019, four confirmed cases of monkeypox arrived in the UK, all recent travelers from Nigeria. Three more cases with a similar travel history arrived in 2021.

“Hypothetically, it could be that the transmission of the virus was amplified from this low level of transmission when it by chance entered the population that is currently amplifying transmission,” Heymann said.

Genetic studies on monkeypox viruses taken from people in the ongoing outbreak show a strong resemblance to the virus that reached the UK, Israel and Singapore from Africa in 2018 and 2019. They also carry mutations that may have arisen when the virus was circulating at low levels. .

While the UK’s first official case of 2022 arrived from Nigeria on May 4, the virus was already in the country.

On May 14, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) released images of monkeypox and doctors at sexual health clinics realized that some of their patients might have the disease.

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