Monkeypox outbreak may persist but we have the power to end it

It’s not the news we needed after a two-year-long pandemic, but the growing consensus out there among the experts is that the UK’s monkeypox outbreak could well last for a number of months.

Most believe that the spread of infections will eventually be brought under control – and certainly won’t go the way of Covid-19 – but a “lot of work” will be required to get to this point, says Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and scientific adviser to the government.

“You’re not going to get rid of it overnight,” he told The Independent. “It’s going to take a good couple of months of really solid work to chase up all the infections and contacts and stamp it out.

“It will take a while. Public health teams are chasing all of these chains of transmission – some of them are going to be cryptic for all kinds of reasons.

In the meantime, how large could Britain’s outbreak get? Well, firstly, it’s worth noting that the current cases detected so far, including the 71 announced on Monday, do not necessarily correspond to real-time transmission.

Authorities are instead playing catch-up in identifying patients, many of whom would have been infected weeks ago due to the long incubation period of the virus, which can last up to 21 days.

Daily uptakes on newly detected infections may give the impression of an outbreak that is slowly slipping out of control, but this simply isn’t the case.

Nonetheless, it’s apparent that monkeypox has seeded itself in the wider population and is spreading among well-connected networks, including communities of men who have sex with men.

On account of this, it’s unlikely that monkeypox will suddenly vanish over a short period of time, according to one scientific adviser to the government who asked not to be named.

“[Curbing the outbreak] will probably take a shift in behaviour which we probably haven’t seen yet,” they said. “I would therefore expect cases to keep increasing, but I’d be surprised if cases get above 1,000 – but that is just an educated guess.”

Many of us have may have already moved on from this particular outbreak, more concerned by the cost-of-living crisis or Partygate, perhaps. We know that monkeypox doesn’t spread easily from person to person. We know it’s a relatively mild illness that resolves itself over a matter of weeks. We know that gay and bisexual men account for a large proportion of current cases. Some will ask why they should be concerned.

These points may be true, but that still doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. Pathogens do not discriminate, and while health authorities are right to raise awareness among more affected communities, all of us remain susceptible (even if the general risk is low).

Experts have been clear over the warning signs and what action to take where relevant: keep an eye out for newly-formed rashes or lesions on the body, abstain from sex if displaying symptoms, self-isolate following close contact with a known case, maintain good hygiene practices and so on.

With the right response from both the health authorities and the public, this latest (and unexpected) chapter can be brought to a close. We just need to be patient, follow the guidance and exercise caution.

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