More Global Approach Needed to Control Monkeypox
By Kestér Kenn Klomegâh
With increasing numbers of monkeypox virus among 1.3 billion people, African health experts have expressed worriness over lack of appropriate vaccines to contain the outbreak in Africa. That however in mid-August, the acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ahmed Ogwell, said there two partners “largely multilateral institutions and non-African governments” have shown some interest in helping out with manufacturing of vaccines without offering detailed information.
“Let us get vaccines onto the continent,” Ogwell, said in a weekly media briefing pointing to another instance of 1.3 billion people on the continent without access to a vaccine, as it has been with the Covid-19 pandemic. Africa remains the only part of the world with no doses of the vaccine, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More monkeypox deaths have been reported on the African continent this year than anywhere in the world. Since May, nearly 90 countries have reported more than 31,000 cases. At least 2,947 monkeypox cases have been reported in 11 African countries this year, including 104 deaths, but most of the cases reported are suspect ones because the African continent also lacks enough diagnostic resources for thorough testing, the Africa CDC director Ogwell said.
The lack of vaccine doses and shortage of diagnostics is an echo of the challenges that Africa’s 54 countries faced for months during the Covid-19 pandemic as richer countries elsewhere raced to secure supplies. Given the continuous spread of the monkeypox virus especially in central and west African regions, raises the question of exploring the accesibility of vaccine supply. It relates closely plans to provide educational materials and educating the public about the virus spread, the risk of contracting it (means of transmission) – there has to be a stark acknowledgment of a preventive approach.
Although the current explosion of cases has occurred in men, experts say there is no biological reason the virus will remain largely within the community of men who have sex with men. “We certainly know it’s going to spread to family members and to other non-male partners that people have,” said Dr. Jay Varma, director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response. The real question, he said, is whether it spreads as efficiently in those groups as it does among close sexual networks of men who have sex with men.
The World Health Organization classified the escalating outbreak of the once-rare monkeypox disease as an international emergency in July. Outside of Africa, 98% of cases are among men who have sex with men. With a limited global supply of vaccines, authorities are racing to stop monkeypox before it becomes entrenched. WHO has, however, warned against supply discrimination.
Early August, Wendy Orent, the author of “Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease” and “Ticked: The Battle Over Lyme Disease in the South” wrote in Los Angeles Times Op-Ed: Monkeypox is not the next Covid. But it’s spreading from the same failures.
The expert explained that monkeypox a well-studied disease: In the past, it has been concentrated primarily in rural West or Central Africa and transmitted from a bush animal to a person, who then would spread it to limited family members in close contact. During the 2003 outbreak in the U.S., people caught it directly from pet prairie dogs that got infected by small mammals imported from West Africa. None of the U.S. cases that year spread to another person.
In contrast, the recent outbreak is spreading more widely person-to-person. But if governments take the right steps and help block transmission by giving key resources to those most at risk – currently gay and queer men – monkeypox can be contained. The global alarm sounded on this virus should be a warning to intervene now while the disease is manageable and take steps to limit future outbreaks, two goals well within reach.
Monkeypox was first detected among monkeys kept in a Denmark laboratory in 1958. Only in 1970 did doctors record a human case, indicating that monkeypox could also infect people. The disease, which closely resembles smallpox, wasn’t distinguished as a separate infection until smallpox was nearly eliminated. Smallpox vaccination campaigns kept both diseases at bay until 1980, when the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated and vaccination campaigns ended.
Smallpox spread only through humans, with no animal population keeping it alive. It evolved over millennia to become a true human specialist, effective at transmission and overcoming immunity. Centuries of an arms race in Africa, Asia and Europe allowed the smallpox virus to fine-tune its attacks on the human immune system. When it burst into the previously unexposed populations of the Western hemisphere via European invaders, the sharpened teeth of smallpox met no resistance. Some scholars estimate that 90% of native Americans died of it.
That monkeypox is spreading rapidly is undeniable. While monkeypox isn’t at this point a truly sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea or syphilis, sexual contact has driven this outbreak. Monkeypox spreads through intimate physical contact, including direct contact with monkeypox pustules loaded with virus. People may not realize that their malaise is monkeypox in its early phase. Although anyone touching an infected person or their sheets, clothing and towels could theoretically catch monkeypox, the highest risk remains in concentrated networks of friends, companions and lovers.
The scandal of monkeypox is that this worldwide outbreak has happened at all. An epidemic has persisted in Nigeria since 2017. A more deadly strain has caused thousands of suspected cases and likely killed hundreds in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We have for years had the capacity to vaccinate those most at risk via two doses of Jynneos, the safer, updated version of the old smallpox vaccine. But we haven’t done so, and now the virus has reached the Western world. Now millions of doses have been ordered for the U.S. alone – and none yet for Africa.
Why do we in the West only pay attention when a disease outbreak directly threatens us? That’s the real outrage, the real question. The only answer is a more global approach to health, a recognition that when disease breaks out in one part of the world, it often will – as Covid and now monkeypox have shown us – affect us all.