Talking point

Is monkeypox here to stay?

A total of 2,759 infections have been detected in the UK, the majority of them in London

The viral illness monkeypox is spreading around the world, leading to fears the virus could embed itself as the next global health threat.

Just two weeks after the World Health Organization issued its highest emergency alert following a worldwide surge in monkeypox cases, the US has declared it a public health emergency. 

In the UK, a total of 2,759 infections have been detected. The majority have been found in London, but health officials have warned that the virus has begun to spread outside the capital too. “Time is slipping away quite quickly,” said the Terrence Higgins Trust, which helped coordinate the national effort to contain it.

How worried should we be about monkeypox?

Monkeypox is already endemic in ten countries in West and Central Africa, with dozens of cases reported this year in Cameroon, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. These figures “are almost certainly underestimates”, said Science.org. Many infections happen in remote and rural areas, and data collection is hampered by conflict in several regions.

In the UK, LGBTQ+ groups have warned that the illness risks becoming endemic in Britain unless the government takes tougher action to curb its spread. Writing to Health Secretary Steve Barclay, an alliance of charities and activists called for “clear, non-stigmatising messaging” and improvements to efforts to vaccinate those most at risk.

They are also advising against panic. Although headlines might look “grim enough that you might be worried that monkeypox is like Sars or Covid”, this virus is “much less contagious and much less likely to be deadly than Covid”, said The New York Times. There are also treatments and vaccines which are effective against the illness.

Could it have been stopped?

In the time since monkeypox has been detected outside of Africa, limited vaccination campaigns have begun in Western countries, intended to inoculate at-risk populations with vaccines originally developed to protect against smallpox. 

Yet despite thousands of cases detected in Africa since it emerged on the continent in 1970, which has resulted in hundreds of deaths, “not a single vaccination campaign has been set up on the continent”, said Quartz. A group of Nigerian scientists “rang the alarm bell” about the spread of monkeypox in 2018, it reported. Had jabs been offered there before the virus emerged elsewhere on the planet, “the current emergency would likely not exist”.

But African countries “don’t have stockpiles of smallpox vaccine – nor access to treatment”. And Western countries have failed to donate any stockpiled doses, which they have held in case of a potential bio-terror attack, “all the while ignoring the actual risk of having a preventable infectious disease circulate on the other side of the world”.

As monkeypox continues to spread and Western nations struggle to find an adequate response, we are seeing “yet another example of the shortcomings of global health approaches that rely on rich countries to lead the fight against diseases”, said the news site. 

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