In recent days in Italy, in other European countries and in the United States some cases of monkeypox have been reported, a disease caused by a virus belonging to the same family as smallpox. The news on the cases detected was reported in the newspapers, sometimes with rather alarmed headlines and tones, even if in most cases the disease spreads little and is less serious than smallpox. The new cases of infection should not be underestimated, but at the moment the main health authorities have not indicated any particular risks and experts urge you not to be alarmed.
The confirmed case of monkeypox in Italy concerns a man recently returned from the Canary Islands, who presented himself at the Policlinico Umberto I in Rome after noticing the appearance of numerous pustules on the face and in other areas of the body, although he had no other details. symptoms. Subsequent analyzes conducted at the “Lazzaro Spallanzani” National Institute for Infectious Diseases confirmed the presence of monkeypox. The patient was placed in solitary confinement and his condition was described as “fair” by the doctors. In the meantime, checks are underway at Spallanzani on two other suspected cases.
In the previous days, other cases of monkeypox had been identified in Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States. In the United Kingdom alone, at least nine cases have been detected in recent days, one traced back to a recent trip to Nigeria, while for the others the World Health Organization (WHO) suspects 'local infections'. The cases in Spain reported so far are at least seven, while in Portugal they are five; also for these it is not clear the source of the infection.
Monkeypox is an infectious disease caused by the MPXV virus (Monkeypox virus) and should not be confused with the much more risky smallpox, a disease declared eradicated in 1979 by the WHO following a massive vaccination campaign conducted in the late 1950s. and the late seventies. Vaccinations have saved millions of lives, considering that in 1967 alone the disease affected at least 15 million people, causing the death of around two million infected.
In general, monkeypox is widespread in non-human primates (as the name suggests) and in some species of small rodents, especially in Africa. Infection is transmitted from these animals to humans through saliva and other fluids, or through direct contact. An infected person can in some circumstances infect another, for example through drops of saliva, contact with wounds or infected biological fluids, but the human-to-human transmission routes are not yet fully understood and are considered rare by experts.
Within a few days, those who contract the virus develop symptoms typical of viral infections such as fever, muscle aches, headache, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes. The disease then causes blisters and pustules to appear on the face and later on the hands and feet, which can be very itchy and crusted.
Monkeypox has a positive course in most cases. Symptoms subside and disappear in a couple of weeks, without the need for special therapies, other than those to reduce some discomfort due to symptoms. In some cases, antiviral drugs are used to slow the replication of the virus within the body, so that the immune system can more easily fight the infection.
Monkeypox virus infections are infrequent outside of Africa, although an outbreak in the United States with several cases was reported in 2003. Epidemiological investigations had made it possible to trace the source of the first infections to the importation of some animals from Africa, which had not received thorough checks before their arrival in the United States.
The smallpox vaccine administered until the early 1980s also appears to offer good protection against monkeypox: according to some research, it has an efficacy of around 85 percent. However, the vaccinated population is now over 40 years old, considering that in many countries the administration of the vaccine was interrupted after the declaration of eradication by the WHO. In Italy, vaccination against smallpox was mandatory and was abolished in 1981. This circumstance has been reported in some newspapers, associating it with potential greater risks for the youngest. In general, however, precisely because one has not vaccinated against smallpox for a long time, it is difficult to make accurate assessments on the protection offered by vaccination against a similar disease, which however has its own and unique characteristics.
It is still unclear what caused the new cases of monkeypox recorded outside Africa, although many are attributable to recent trips to the continent. In recent years, the largest number of cases had been detected in Central and West Africa and in particular in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with around 2,000 cases per year in the period between 2011 and 2014. The cases could be more due to of the difficulty in tracing them all, especially in rural areas that are poorly attended by health personnel.
In 2018, an outbreak of monkeypox was detected in the UK and then traced back to a person returning from a trip to Nigeria, and four cases in all were detected. In 2021, also in the United Kingdom, three other cases had been detected and another had been discovered in the United States, a person also returning from Nigeria.
It is estimated that in general cases are increasing on a global scale, thanks to the greater circulation of people, if we exclude the reduction in travel in the last two years due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, almost all cases turned out to be mild and with symptoms that resolved within a couple of weeks, often without requiring antiviral drugs.