Genetic clues and how it might be spreading

Monkeypox samples are being studied at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

Monkeypox samples are being studied at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.
Photo: JUDY GRIESEDIECK/Star Tribune (fake images)

Cases of monkey pox continue to rise worldwide, with more than 200 confirmed and suspected cases documented in more than 20 countries. Scientists are beginning to collect their first clues about these outbreaks, including how the virus may have started to spread further than ever before.

according to a tracker from the group, 174 confirmed cases and 93 suspected cases have been reported from 21 countries as of Tuesday afternoon. The UK and Spain have reported the most cases, and at least seven cases have been found in the US, including one in New York City. No deaths reported so far; the type of monkeypox virus associated with these cases is known to have a mortality rate of about 1%.

The viral disease it tends to cause large, patchy rashes all over the body, along with flu-like symptoms. It can take up to three weeks after exposure for symptoms to start and two weeks for the disease to clear up. The virus spreads primarily through direct contact, although it can also be spread through contaminated surfaces, as well as through respiratory droplets and aerosols. Infected people are not considered contagious until they start showing symptoms.

Closely related to the now-extinct smallpox virus, monkeypox is endemic to parts of Africa and is thought to typically infect rodents. Following its discovery in the 1950s, it occasionally jumped from animals to humans, causing localized outbreaks with limited human-to-human transmission. That makes these newer cases very different from past incursions of the virus. But we may have some early clues to what’s going on.

An electron microscope image of a single monkeypox virus.

An electron microscope image of a single monkeypox virus.
Photo: Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner/CDC via AP (access point)

Some researchers have been able to genetically sequence samples of the virus collected from patients. These results suggest that the strains in these cases are closely related to strains recently collected in Nigeria, where outbreaks have been ongoing since 2018. At least so far, there appears to be no evidence that the virus has mutated significantly since then, which which is reassuring. But more research will be needed to rule out the possibility that it has somehow become more inherently transmissible between humans.

“In the past, person-to-person spread has occurred, but it has been fairly limited. We do not yet know if it is spreading more easily from person to person. That’s one possible explanation, but I’m not yet aware of any evidence to support that idea,” Andrew Pavia, an infectious disease physician at the University of Utah, told Gizmodo last week.

If the virus has not inherently changed, then these outbreaks may be the result of other factors, including how it is now detected. Many cases have been found in young gay and bisexual men who were recently sexually active. And an adviser to the World Health Organization has plot that its spread may have been amplified by two recent raves in Spain and Belgium, where casual sex was common.

However, even if this turns out to be true, it would not mean that gay or bisexual men are the only people at risk, as the virus can spread through direct contact between any sexual partner. It is also possible that these cases were found for the first time simply because these people tend to be more aware of the risk of sexually transmitted infections in general and, as a result, are more likely to visit a doctor regularly. On Tuesday, the popular dating app Grindr send sends a monkeypox alert to its users, advising them to seek medical help if they or a recent sexual partner develop unusual sores or rashes.

Other experts have argued that the virus may be spreading more now because of decreased immunity to the related smallpox virus after its eradication in 1980. Poxviruses often cause cross-immunity with other poxviruses, but this protection has faded. over time. in the general population for a number of reasons, according to Jo Walker, an infectious disease epidemiologist and modeler at the Yale School of Public Health.

“This ‘declining immunity’ is due less to declining immunity at the individual level, and more to people with immunity dying, and people without immunity being born and then having no immunity,” Walker told Gizmodo last week. pass.

The risk of monkeypox to the general public is still considered low. And for now, Pavia says, there is no reason to panic or for most people to worry. “But it’s early, so that may change,” he said.

In fact, officials in Europe have warned that if these outbreaks are not contained quickly and effectively enough, the virus could establish itself in new parts of the world and cause regular outbreaks from here on out. And while monkeypox can be controlled with vaccines and preventative treatments, the last thing the world needs right now is the trouble of another emerging infectious disease.

This article has been updated with comments from Andrew Pavia and Jo Walker.

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