Just as the world appears to be heaving a sigh of relief from the turmoil and trepidation triggered by COVID-19’s brutal reign, another infectious disease has begun to rattle the global healthcare landscape, the threat of which must be taken seriously. Monkeypox, as the disease is called, is a rare disease that is caused by infection with the monkeypox virus, which belongs to the Orthopoxvirus genus in the family Poxviridae.
While the name “monkeypox” derives from the first documented cases being laboratory monkeys in 1958, it has been established that monkeys are not the major carriers of the viral zoonosis. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), various animal species have been identified as possible hosts of the monkeypox virus. These include rope squirrels, tree squirrels, Gambian pouched rats, dormice, non-human primates and other species.
Also, while this is not the first outbreak of the disease among humans – there have been intermittent episodes since the first confirmed human case in 1970 – the present occurrence has become particularly concerning for certain reasons. Firstly, even though the disease had always been endemic to West and Central African countries, it has increasingly begun to surface in countries where it is not normally endemic. Secondly, health officials have projected that more cases will arise with increased travel. Moreover, while most infections with monkeypox – which commences with flu-like symptoms and progresses to a distinctive rash on the face and body – are resolved within weeks, some cases can be fatal.
As of May 21, the WHO reported 92 laboratory-confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases of monkeypox from 12 member states not endemic to the monkeypox virus. So far, countries like Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom have reported the highest number of cases. Both the United States and Canada have also reported cases; this is even as the United States’ Centres for Disease Control has said it is tracking “multiple clusters” in the aforementioned countries.
In Nigeria, which is domiciled in the endemic region, the country’s disease-tracking agency, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), has confirmed 15 of the 46 suspected cases in the country since January 2022. It is of vital importance to note that the NCDC has warned that there is presently no treatment option for the infection. And while the Minister of State for Health, Dr Olorunnimbe Mamora, recently allayed the fears of Nigerians with the assurance that the NCDC is working to mitigate the spread of the disease, efforts must be made to ensure that the citizenry is involved in seriously taking preventive measures against the disease. Such measures, according to the NCDC, include avoidance of contact with suspected animal carriers of the virus, as well as isolation of infected humans and regular washing of hands with soap and water.
We also urge the NCDC and other national health agencies in the endemic countries to collaborate with the WHO in preventing further spread of the disease. Moreover, since monkeypox is a viral disease like COVID-19, it implies that facilities and equipment adopted in treating patients such as the isolation centres, use of personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers and testing kits will be required by health workers to successfully fight this viral infection to a halt. The Federal Ministry of Health and the state health ministries must rise to this challenge. Additionally, efforts must be made to provide all precautionary tools and logistics at the country’s entry and exit points to curb the spread of the infection.
Very importantly, state governments must deliberately issue statements against bush meat hunting and consumption within this period, especially as hunters cannot know infected animals until they are tested. Thus for the sake of national interest and the safety of all, bush meat hunting should be legislated against, while government makes provision for alternative means of income generation for those to be affected.
Vigilance on the part of the health authorities in each country of the world, especially the endemic ones, will play a key role in preventing further spread of the monkeypox virus. This is where the public enlightenment arms of the WHO and Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Health must be proactive. The world cannot afford another major disease outbreak when COVID-19 has not been officially declared defeated.