The current outbreak of the infectious disease known as monkeypox raises questions about human and animal health.
A new outbreak of the infectious disease monkeypox has emerged in non-endemic countries, with handfuls of cases spreading in America, Canada and across Europe. Normally found in tropical regions of Africa, this monkeypox outbreak is unusual as those infected have no connection to endemic regions. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is on high alert for infectious diseases. So, what exactly is monkeypox… and does it have anything to do with monkeys?
What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a viral disease that typically occurs in the tropical rainforest areas of West and Central Africa. First found in monkeys, hence the name, monkeypox affects an ark of different animals. It is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to humans, usually through a vector species like rodents. The first known human case was identified in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and since then, monkeypox has become endemic to several African countries .
Monkeypox symptoms include fever, rash, swollen lymph nodes and rather unsightly lesions. These symptoms usually last 2-4 weeks. Monkeypox can be passed from person to person through close contact with lesions, body fluids and contaminated materials like bedding.
More than 1000 monkeypox cases and 50 deaths were reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the past few months. Worryingly, monkeypox cases have also appeared in non-endemic countries after being first identified in the UK in May .
Scientists are trying to explain this jump. Small clusters of cases have cropped up elsewhere in the world before, all linked to someone who has travelled to an endemic country. The current outbreak is unusual as those infected have no connection to those places. This could be because of a superspreader event that an infected person attended, which subsequently exported monkeypox around the world. Alternatively, perhaps the virus has been slowly infecting many people unnoticed.
Effects on longevity
Cases are expected to rise globally and monkeypox has become a disease of global health importance since it not only affects countries in West and Central Africa, but around the world. While monkeypox does cause ill health, its fatality rate remains relatively low.
Monkeypox has been compared to smallpox, a deadly disease of the past that killed millions before being eradicated in 1980. Although monkeypox resembles smallpox, that’s where the comparison ends. Monkeypox is less contagious and causes less severe illness .
Luckily, smallpox vaccines also protect against monkeypox and an antiviral for the treatment of smallpox can also treat monkeypox. This means it is extremely unlikely that the current outbreak will develop into anything like the last global disease outbreak of coronavirus.
The emergence of infectious diseases
Monkeypox does represent a rather worrying trend in epidemiology. In our increasingly globalised world, we are more connected than ever before. Unfortunately, this also goes for the spread of diseases. Diseases can now flit around the world faster than their symptoms show. Global transport and trade, including of animals, can also increase the spread of zoonotic diseases .
Most infections in humans once started in animals. In the past 100 years, humans have used over half of the land on Earth, encroaching on wild animals’ habitats. This increases the contact between animals and humans, and therefore the incidence of zoonotic disease .
The way human beings treat animals is affecting our health. The number of new or unknown pathogens in wild animals is almost limitless, and this means that wet markets common to parts of Asia that sell wild animal meat can be hotspots for infection; indeed, the wet markets in Wuhan, China were speculatively linked to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Additionally, the appetite for hunting bushmeat in Africa has grown. Eating undercooked meat of wild animals has been linked to infectious diseases, including monkeypox.
Closer to home, the cramped conditions of intensive factory farming also encourages rapid spread of diseases. For example, the global swine flu pandemic in 2009 started in farmed pigs and jumped to humans. Worryingly, the widespread use of antibiotics in farm animals increases the risk of drug-resistant diseases in animals and humans .
There needs to be a move towards ‘one health’, an approach that recognises how closely linked human health is with animals and our shared environment. This is essential to avoiding diseases like monkeypox and preserving human health and longevity.