A top European health official has warned that cases of the rare monkeypox virus could accelerate in the coming months as the virus spreads across Europe.
Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said that “as we enter the summer season…with mass gatherings, festivals and celebrations, I fear transmission is accelerating” .
The virus, which causes distinct pustules but is rarely fatal, has previously been observed in central and western Africa.
But in recent weeks, cases have been detected in European countries, including Portugal and Sweden, as well as the United States, Canada and Australia, Kluge said, calling the spread “atypical”. .
“All but one of the recent cases have no relevant travel history to areas where monkeypox is endemic,” he added.
The health official warned that the transmission could be spurred by the fact that “the cases currently detected are among those who engage in sexual activity”, and many do not recognize the symptoms.
Most initial cases of the disease were in men who have sex with men seeking treatment at sexual health clinics, Kluge said, adding that “this suggests transmission may have been ongoing for some time.” .
The WHO said it was investigating that many reported cases were of people identifying as gay, bisexual or having sex with men.
The official’s statement came as France, Belgium and Germany reported their first cases of monkeypox and Italy confirmed it now has three linked cases of the disease.
The three confirmed monkeypox cases in Belgium were linked to a large-scale fetish festival in the port city of Antwerp on Friday, Darklands Festival organizers said.
French authorities said the virus infected a 29-year-old man living in the region that includes Paris.
In Spain, the health ministry reported seven confirmed cases and said it was awaiting confirmation of 23 more.
But a regional health official said authorities had recorded 21 confirmed cases in the Madrid region, most linked to a gay-friendly sauna in the heart of the capital.
It was likely that these figures had not yet been included in the national tally.
Portugal has recorded 23 confirmed cases.
On Friday, British health authorities reported 11 more confirmed cases in England, bringing its total to 20.
UK Health Security Agency chief medical adviser Susan Hopkins said she expected ‘this increase to continue in the coming days and more cases to be identified in the wider community “.
She particularly urged gay and bisexual men to look out for symptoms, saying a “notable proportion” of cases in the UK and Europe came from this group.
Monkeypox had not previously been described as a sexually transmitted infection, the UKHSA said.
It can be transmitted through contact with broken skin and droplets from an infected person, as well as shared objects such as bedding and towels.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid sought to reassure the public, tweeting: “Most cases are mild and I can confirm we have purchased new doses of effective monkeypox vaccines.”
Symptoms of the disease include fever, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills, exhaustion, and a chickenpox-like rash on the hands and face.
The first UK case was announced on May 7, in a patient who had recently traveled to Nigeria.
Two more cases were reported a week later, in people from the same household. They had no connection to the first case.
UKHSA said four more cases announced on May 16, all identified as gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men and appeared to have been infected in London.
He said two new cases reported on May 18 also had no travel history to countries where the virus is endemic and “it is possible that they acquired the infection through community transmission.”
He gave no details of the latest cases reported on Friday.
On Thursday, Italian health authorities announced the country’s first case of monkeypox, in a young man who had recently returned from the Canary Islands.
On Friday, they said two more cases, linked to “patient zero,” had been confirmed.
Monkeypox usually goes away after two to four weeks, according to the WHO.