South Africa announced this Thursday (23) that it had registered a first case of monkeypox, which has already been detected in around forty countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) emergency committee is meeting for the first time to decide whether the rise in cases constitutes an international public health emergency.
According to South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla, the patient is a 30-year-old man from Johannesburg with no travel history. This means that the contamination did not take place outside the country.
Health authorities are also trying to trace people with whom the patient has been in contact. No information was released on the health status of the infected person or the symptoms they developed.
Signs of the disease are usually fever, swollen lymph nodes, and skin rashes.. The virus is eliminated by the body between two and three weeks after infection.
More than 2,000 cases worldwide
After a first wave in 10 African countries, 84% of new cases have been reported this year in Europe and 12% in the Americas. Nearly 2,100 infections have been detected since the start of 2022 worldwide.
Last week, the WHO said the epicenter of monkeypox is Europe, but other countries have been counting infections since May. This Thursday, the organization must decide whether the epidemic will be declared an international public health emergency and whether to make vaccination recommendations. All decisions will be announced on Friday (24).
Final approval will be in the hands of WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. If a state of health emergency is declared, the committee must make recommendations to “prevent and reduce the spread of the disease”, the organization said.
According to the WHO, the number of cases worldwide is expected to be much higher than the officially recorded one. Experts believe that the virus was already circulating before the contaminations began to put the medical profession on alert.
The WHO also mentions a possible renaming of the disease, considered stigmatizing by some countries. Many scientists argue that only the name of the new circulating virus strain, hMPXV, should be used. Earlier this month, more than 30 mostly African experts published an open letter calling for a change in nomenclature so that it “is not discriminatory”.
Orthopoxvirus was detected by Danish scientists in the 1950s in caged monkeys in a laboratory. Cases of the disease in humans have been recorded since the 1970s.
The pathogen is considered rare and usually transmitted to individuals by infected animals, most commonly rodents. However, current infections occur primarily in humans.
For many experts, calling the disease monkeypox essentially implies linking it to African countries. “It’s not a disease that can really be attributed to monkeys,” says virologist Oyewale Tomori of Redeemer University in Nigeria.
The African continent has always been associated with major pandemics. “We saw that with HIV in the 1980s or Ebola in 2013, and then with Covid and the supposed ‘South African variants‘,” notes epidemiologist Oliver Restif. “It’s a broader debate and related to the stigmatization of Africa.”
The specialist even criticizes the images used by the press to illustrate the news of the disease. According to him, these are often “old photographs of African patients”, when in reality the current cases “are much less serious” and outside the continent, he said.
(With information from AFP)