Despite the “unusual” spread of monkeypox around the world, the risk to Canadians right now is “low,” the country’s top doctors say.
Just under a “couple dozen of people” are under investigation for monkeypox in Canada after the country confirmed its first cases this week, said Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam, noting that the cases under investigation were mostly in Quebec and B.C.
“There are samples under processing at the National Microbiology Lab as we speak, so we might expect to hear more confirmations in the upcoming hours and days,” Tam told reporters during a news conference on Friday.
“So far we do know not many of these individuals are connected to travel to Africa, where the disease is normally seen. This is unusual. It’s unusual for the world to see these many cases reported in different countries outside of Africa.”
On Thursday, the Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed its first two cases of monkeypox after two people in Quebec tested positive for the disease.
Twenty other suspected cases are also being investigated in the province, Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services said.
Monkeypox is an orthopoxvirus that causes disease, typically transmitted to humans from animals. It is a member of the smallpox family, but is less severe.
Smallpox was eradicated by vaccination in 1980, and its vaccine can be used against monkeypox, said Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer of Canada.
Vaccines that were used to eradicate smallpox are up to 85 per cent effective against monkeypox, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but vaccination campaigns have dropped off since smallpox was eradicated.
Many Canadians born after smallpox’s eradication could be susceptible to monkeypox, he added.
“Historically, our experience with monkeypox has been travel-related; it’s someone who may have been exposed to the virus in Africa and then travelled elsewhere,” he said.
“The fact that it’s now appearing in several countries in Europe as well as here in Canada, we need to learn more about it. Has it evolved? Has it changed to something different in terms of mode of transmission? … We need to be open there may be something else evolving and changing.”
Njoo added the overall risk to the general population is “low,” but people can protect from monkeypox through measures used for COVID-19, like masking and good hygiene.
Canada, like other countries, has a stockpile of smallpox vaccines but its supply is limited, Tam said.
“We are having discussions internationally, but also with provincial counterparts around potential use,” she said.
Authorities in Great Britain have begun offering smallpox vaccine to some health-care workers and others who may have been exposed to monkeypox, a U.K. Health Security Agency spokesperson said on Thursday.
Denmark-based drugmaker Bavarian Nordic said on Thursday that it secured a contract with an undisclosed European country to supply its smallpox vaccine in response to the monkeypox outbreak.
Human-to-human transmission of monkeypox can occur through close contact with another person, through bodily fluids, lesions on skin like blisters, and/or respiratory droplets.
Symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It added that after one to three days of fever, sufferers of monkeypox can develop a facial rash that then spreads to other parts of the body as lesions, which later fall off.
The incubation period for monkeypox is usually seven to 14 days, but can range as wide as five to 21 days. There is no cure for the virus, but most people recover from a monkeypox infection within a few weeks.
Monkeypox was first found in monkeys in 1958, hence the name, although rodents are now seen as the most common animal host.
Generally, monkeypox is transmitted in certain parts of Africa where it is endemic, but the recent cases in Europe and North America have baffled researchers as none appear to be linked to the continent.
In the past week, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the U.S. and Sweden all reported infections, mostly in young men who hadn’t previously travelled to Africa. France, Germany, Belgium and Australia confirmed their first cases of monkeypox on Friday.
The WHO estimates there are thousands of monkeypox infections in about a dozen African countries every year. Most are in Congo, which reports about 6,000 cases annually, and Nigeria, with about 3,000 cases a year.
Investigators are trying to figure out how the disease is being transmitted among humans. Several cases have been reported in men who have sex with men.
“The community of men who have sex with men has been historically incredibly stigmatized with relation to virus infection, so I want to be very careful to say that that link has not been finalized yet,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan, told Global News on Thursday.
“Everybody should keep in mind how monkeypox can be transmitted, and that is through shared air, through aerosols, through direct or indirect contact, but through prolonged physical proximity with a person who is infected.”
Rasmussen added while there are multiple ways monkeypox spreads among humans, it requires fairly extended contact with another person to get sick.
— with files from Global News’ Saba Aziz and The Associated Press
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