Monkeypox arrives in SA: What you need to know

Monkeypox arrives in SA: What you need to know

South Africa has reported its first case of monkeypox, joining some 40 other countries that have identified patients with the disease.

Monkeypox arrives in SA: What you need to know
AFP PHOTO / Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regnery / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

"The patient is a 30-year-old male from Johannesburg who has no travel history, meaning that this cannot be attributed to having been acquired outside South Africa," Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a post-cabinet briefing on Thursday.

Here is what you need to know:

1. What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is caused by infection with the monkeypox virus, a member of the genus Orthopoxvirus in the family Poxviridae.

There are currently more than 80 poxviruses known to science and these poxviruses have been isolated from different species of birds, insects, reptiles, marsupials, and mammals. 

Poxviruses that may cause human disease include the smallpox (or variola) virus and the molluscum contagiosum virus. These viruses are not highly transmissible from person to person.

2. Where does monkeypox occur?

Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 in Denmark when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research, hence the name ‘monkeypox.’ 

The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Monkeypox is endemic (or naturally occurring) in countries in central and western Africa. 

Monkeypox infections in humans are noted in the endemic countries albeit at a relatively low level. An increase in human monkeypox has been noted in recent years in Nigeria but also in other locations in the Region. 

Human cases of monkeypox have been reported outside of the endemic countries in the US in 2003 in an outbreak related to the exotic pet trade. In addition, cases of monkeypox have been reported in Israel, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.

On 13th May 2022, World Health Organization (WHO) was notified of two laboratory-confirmed cases and one probable case of monkeypox, from the same household, in the United Kingdom. Since the disease has been detected in a number of European countries, the USA, and Australia.

3. How is monkeypox virus transmitted?

Monkeypox virus can be transmitted to a person upon contact with the virus from an animal, human, or materials contaminated with the virus. Entry of the virus is through broken skin, respiratory tract, or the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth). 

In endemic countries, the monkeypox virus may be spread by handling infected bush meat, an animal bite or scratch, body fluids, and contaminated objects. In Africa, monkeypox infection has been found in many animal species: rope squirrels, tree squirrels, Gambian rats, striped mice, dormice, and primates.

Certain species of rodents are suspected of being the main disease carrier of monkeypox, although this has not been proven yet. 

In non-endemic countries, persons are most likely to be exposed to monkeypox through contact with an individual that is already sick with monkeypox. Cases of monkeypox spreading through animals, outside of the endemic areas, are very rare but may involve the exotic pet trade or potential contact with infected animal-derived materials such as skins and leather. 

Person-to-person transmission involves close contact with an infected person or materials that have been contaminated by an infected person.

4. What are the signs and symptoms of monkeypox?

The incubation period (time from infection to symptoms) for monkeypox is on average 7−14 days but can range from 5−21 days. Initial symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, chills, and exhaustion.

Within 1-3 days of onset of disease, blister-like lesions will develop on the face and the extremities including the soles of the feet and palms of the hands. The lesions may however occur on other parts of the body. 

The number of lesions will vary and not all lesions will be at the same stage of development. The lesions progress through several stages before scabbing over and resolving. Most human cases resolve within 2-3 weeks of onset without side effects. The case fatality rate in more recent outbreaks have been on average 1%.

5. When is a monkeypox-infected person no longer contagious?

An infected person is contagious from the onset of the rash/lesions through the scab stage. Once all scabs have fallen off, a person is no longer contagious.

6. How is monkeypox diagnosed?

Monkeypox is diagnosed by a healthcare worker in consideration of the clinical presentation of the patient. The rash would be the most telling sign. However, the healthcare worker will consider possible exposures for the case with the consideration that the likelihood of contracting monkeypox is very low. 

Many other diseases, such as chickenpox, may cause similar rashes and are more common. Samples can be tested at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases to confirm a diagnosis of monkeypox.

7. How is monkeypox treated?

Treatment is supportive, as with most viral infections. Most human cases of monkeypox virus infection do not require any specific treatment and the disease resolves on its own. There is an anti-viral drug that a clinician may consider using for the treatment of more severe cases of monkeypox on a case-by-case basis.

8. How can monkeypox be prevented?

In non-endemic countries, persons are most likely to be exposed to monkeypox through contact with an individual that is already sick with monkeypox. The spread of monkeypox can then be interrupted by contact tracing for diagnosed persons and isolating any persons that develop the disease.

Residual immunity from smallpox vaccination in the population aged 40 and above may also contribute to preventing cases or lead to more mild infections. There is about 85 % protection offered by the smallpox vaccine and monkeypox.

9. What is the risk of contracting monkeypox in South Africa?

The implications for South Africa are that the risk of importation of monkeypox is a reality as lessons learnt from COVID-19 have illustrated that outbreaks in another part of the world can fast become a global concern. The WHO has not recommended any travel restrictions and is working with the affected countries to limit transmission and determine sources of exposure. 

(This information is from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases)


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