Monkeypox has been diagnosed in the UK for the first time, reports BBC News. Public Health England (PHE) said the patient was a resident of Nigeria where the virus was probably contracted. The patient had been staying at a naval base in Cornwall but is now being treated at the infectious diseases unit at the Royal Free Hospital in London.
The report says its experts are working closely with National Health Service (NHS) colleagues “as a precautionary measure” and will be contacting people who might have been in close contact with the individual to provide information and health advice. This includes contacting a number of passengers who travelled in close proximity to the patient on the same flight to the UK.
The report says the patient travelled to London from Nigeria on 2 September and anyone who has not been contacted yet from that flight is advised no further action is required.
Dr Michael Jacobs, clinical director of infection at the Royal Free Hospital, said monkeypox “does not spread easily between people and the risk of transmission to the wider public is very low”. “We are using strict isolation procedures in hospital to protect our staff and patients,” he added.
Dr Nick Phin, the deputy director of the National Infection Service at PHE, said: “It is important to emphasise that monkeypox does not spread easily between people and the overall risk to the general public is very low.
“Public Health England is following up those who have had close contact with the patient to offer advice and to monitor them as necessary.”
He said PHE and the NHS have “well established and robust infection control procedures for dealing with cases of imported infectious disease and these will be strictly followed to minimise the risk of transmission”.
Experts emphasised that, despite its relation to the notoriously deadly smallpox, monkeypox is actually a very mild illness, and it doesn’t spread easily between people, says a LiveScience report. “It’s not spread readily at all. In fact, it’s rather hard to spread,” said Dr William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee, who is not involved with the UK case.
“(Monkeypox) requires rather close contact for transmission, usually over a prolonged period,” Schaffner said. “That’s extremely reassuring” for a case like this, he added.
Monkeypox is a rare viral disease that occurs mostly in remote parts of central and west Africa, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The virus lives in animals, including primates and rodents, but can sometimes “jump” from animals to people, the WHO says.
The report says both monkeypox and smallpox belong to the poxvirus family called orthopoxvirus. Smallpox was declared eradicated from the world in 1980, meaning cases of the disease no longer occur naturally. But human cases of monkeypox continue to occur sporadically. Since 1970, human cases of monkeypox have been reported in 10 African countries, according to the WHO. In 2017, Nigeria experienced its first outbreak of monkeypox since 1978, with 172 suspected cases, the WHO says.
Although monkeypox and smallpox have similar symptoms, monkeypox is less deadly than smallpox: In previous outbreaks, the fatality rate for monkeypox has been between 1% and 10%, the WHO is quoted in the report as saying. In contrast, smallpox had a fatality rate around 30%. (During the Nigeria monkeypox outbreak, there was one reported death, of a patient who had a weakened immune system.)
People infected with monkeypox can spread the disease to others, mostly through “large respiratory droplets” that are expelled when a person coughs, sneezes or talks, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These droplets typically can’t travel more than a few feet, “so prolonged face-to-face contact is required” to spread the disease. The CDC says people may also become infected through direct contact with bodily fluids or the skin lesions of infected people, or via indirect contact with contaminated clothing.
Symptoms usually appear about two weeks after a person is exposed to monkeypox. Initial symptoms can include fever, headache, loss of appetite, muscle aches and swollen lymph nodes, Schaffner said. Soon after, patients develop a “pox” rash, with lesions that often appear over the face and trunk. The lesions progress to become small, fluid-filled blisters before scabbing over and falling off.
People typically recover after two to four weeks, according to the CDC, although some people may be left with scarring from the rash, Schaffner noted. Although the illness may be uncomfortable, for the most part, it’s a very mild disease, Schaffner is quoted in the report as saying. “(The) morality rate is very, very low,” he said.
Because the disease is hard to spread, Schaffner speculated that there would be no further cases of monkeypox tied to the UK case, expect perhaps in family members who travelled with the patient, if that was the case.