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Health experts explain spread of monkeypox

This handout photo taken in the year 2001 and received on May 23, 2022 from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the German federal government agency and research institute responsible for disease control and prevention, shows a colored electron-microscopic capture of the monkeypox virus. PHOTO/AFP

What you need to know:

  • The WHO said on May 21 that: “Vaccination against smallpox had been shown to be protective against monkeypox....” 

First discovered in 1958 in monkeys in a Danish laboratory, the monkeypox virus is an animal disease that always spills to humans and causes havoc.  

Prof Samuel Majalija, a microbiologist at Makerere University, said although the monkeypox virus was first detected in monkeys, its natural reservoir appears to be rodents.

“They eventually found cases in humans in 1970 [in the Democratic Republic of Congo] but it is believed that rodents spread it to humans,” he said.

“Once the person contracts it, it spreads through contacts from person to person. Any virus that spreads through close contact is always a danger. When a virus comes out, it may not be very severe at first, but we don’t know what may happen in the future especially if it mutates,” he added.

Although Dr Allan Muruta, the commissioner-in-charge of epidemics at the Ministry of Health, says Uganda, which shares a border with DR Congo, has never detected any cases of monkeypox in the population, previous studies indicate that the virus has been circulating in Uganda.

A 2013 report by American scientists Johanna Salzer and Innocent Rwego indicates blood samples from 41 percent of rats sampled from houses of people in Kabarole reacted to orthopoxviruses (OPXV).  

The monkeypox virus and smallpox are the viruses in the family of OPXV. Prof Majalija said: “Detection of antibodies against the pox virus means there could have been the virus in the environment at one time.” It is unclear whether there have been human infections. 

“The first one [that emerged to affect humans] was smallpox, and monkeypox is the fourth. But it is not as infectious as smallpox but they are in the same family of viruses. Smallpox was eradicated because of vaccine,” the microbiologist explained. 

Monkeypox vs Covid-19

Experts believe that the coronavirus is more transmissible than the monkeypox virus. 

According to Africa CDC and the World Health Organisation (WHO), monkeypox is transmitted to humans through close contact with the blood, bodily fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials such as bedding. People also contract Covid-19 this way.

Prof Majalija said the monkeypox virus can be spread through large droplets, usually from cough, that fall to the ground within a short distance. “Masks can also help. But hand hygiene and sanitation are important.

Close contact should also be prevented. The disease is treated using antivirals but the vaccine is the best option. Prevention is crucial,” Prof Majalija said.  

The WHO said on May 21 that: “Vaccination against smallpox had been shown to be protective against monkeypox....” 

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