HSE issues advice following cases of monkeypox in the UK

Seven cases of monkeypox have been confirmed in the UK and now the HSE is "actively monitoring" the international situation for prevention.

A doctor holding a stetoscope. The HSE urges people to pay attention for cases of monkeypox.
Image: Via Unsplash - Sasun Bughdaryan

After the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) was informed of a number of confirmed cases of monkeypox in the UK and in Portugal, the HSE (Health Service Executive) established an Incident Management Team to monitor the international situation. The goal is to be prepared in case the possibility of monkeypox cases arises in Ireland too.

Monkeypox is a rare disease that primarily occurs in some parts of Central and West Africa. It is caused by infection with the monkeypox virus and in most cases, it occurs when individuals come in contact with infected animals or eat infected meat. It is not a very infectious disease and although it can be spread person-to-person, it takes close physical contact for it to happen.

The early symptoms of monkeypox virus infection include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. Within one-to-three days, a rash with raised red spots that turn into blisters develops.

Treatment of the infection is mostly supportive, as there is no medicine that can cure monkeypox. Most patients recover within weeks as their body defences fight the infection.

On May 7 this year, the first case of monkeypox was confirmed in the UK. It is believed that this case contracted the infection in West Africa and then travelled to the UK. On May 14, two more cases from the same family were confirmed.

A couple of days later, on May 16, the UK Health Security Agency reported four other cases of monkeypox that do not seem linked to the previous three. All four of these cases were discovered through sexual health services and involved men who have sex with men (MSM) and who do not have any history of travelling to a country where monkeypox is routinely detected. For this reason, the source of infection for these cases is yet to be confirmed.

This has led to considering the possibility that the disease might be sexually transmitted. However, Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, commented on this by saying: “There is no evidence that it is a sexually transmitted virus, such as HIV”.

“It’s more that here the close contact during sexual or intimate activity, including prolonged skin-to-skin contact, may be the key factor during transmission,” he added. In fact, person-to-person transmission occurs through contact with body fluids and skin lesions and primarily through large respiratory droplets, for which prolonged face-to-face contact is required.

The biggest risks of such spread are posed by contact with close family members or sexual contact, while the risk of spread within the wider community is considered to be very low.

HSE has informed that no cases of monkeypox have been detected in Ireland, but that they are actively monitoring the situation after what happened in the UK. Five cases have also been confirmed in Portugal and 20 more suspected cases have been identified. All of them are reported to be males.

The HSE is advising those who self-identify as gbMSM, as well as the general public, to pay attention to any unusual rashes or vesicular lesions on any part of their bodies, in order to detect potential monkeypox cases in their early stages. If anyone notices any similar changes, they are invited to immediately contact a General Practitioner (GP) or a local STI clinic.

The HIV Ireland’s initiative MPOWER, which is working closely with the HPSC, has created a practical ‘Need to Know Guide’ in order “to offer reliable, evidence-based information so folks can better understand the developing situation.” Other useful resources are provided by Ireland’s sexual health services for men who have sex with men, the Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) and Man2Man.

Updated information about Public Sexual Health Services is available here.

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