As the number of monkeypox cases increases around the world, the World Health Organization has urged men who have sex with men to limit their sexual partners.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who declared monkeypox a global health emergency last Saturday, told reporters that the best way to protect against infection was to “reduce the risk of exposure.”
“For men who have sex with men, this means temporarily reducing your number of sexual partners, reconsidering sex with new partners, and exchanging contact information with any new partners to enable follow-up if necessary,” he said on Wednesday.
Since early May, there has been an increase in monkeypox infections outside of the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic.
Tedros said on Wednesday that more than 18,000 cases of monkeypox had been reported to WHO from 78 countries, with Europe accounting for 70% of cases and the Americas accounting for 25%.
Five deaths have been reported in the outbreak since May, and he estimates that 10% of those infected end up in the hospital for pain management.
‘Anyone’ can get monkeypox
Approximately 98 percent of cases have occurred in men who have had sex with other men.
According to a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, 98 percent of infected people were gay or bisexual men, and 95 percent of cases were transmitted through sexual activity.
However, experts say that the disease, which causes a blistering rash, appears to be spread primarily through close physical contact, and monkeypox has not yet been classified as a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Experts have also warned against thinking that the disease can only affect one community, emphasizing that it spreads through regular skin-to-skin contact as well as droplets or touching contaminated bedding or towels in a household setting.
“Anyone who has been exposed can get monkeypox,” Tedros said, urging countries to “take action” to reduce the risk of transmission to other vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women, and immunocompromised people.
The WHO has repeatedly warned against disease stigma, which may discourage those infected from seeking treatment.
“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus, fueling the outbreak,” Tedros explained.
The messaging about the need for gay and bisexual men to reduce their number of sexual partners, according to Andy Seale of WHO’s sexually transmitted infections program, is “coming from the communities themselves.”
However, he stated that this was likely only a “short-term message” because “we hope that the outbreak, of course, will be brief.”
He emphasized that other measures, such as spreading information about the symptoms to look for and the need to isolate quickly, as well as access to tests and medicines, would be required to reduce the number of cases.
No mass vaccination
WHO also recommends targeted vaccination for those who have been exposed to monkeypox or are at high risk of exposure, such as health workers and people who have multiple sexual partners.
“We do not recommend mass vaccination against monkeypox at this time,” Tedros said.
Vaccines developed to combat smallpox – monkeypox’s far more lethal cousin that was eradicated more than four decades ago – have been found to protect against the virus, but supplies are limited.
Tedros also stated that “vaccination does not provide immediate protection against infection or disease and can take several weeks.”
Concerning the supply issues, he stated that there were approximately 16 million doses of the main vaccine available from Danish drugmaker Bavarian Nordic, but that the majority of them were in bulk form.
“They will take several months to fill and finish into ready-to-use vials,” he said, urging countries that have already obtained doses to share them.
“In all countries and regions, we must ensure equitable access to vaccines for all individuals and communities affected by monkeypox.”