A pox on all our houses? Not quite, but virus is still a worry

Monkeypox is a well known and understood disease, not a novel one - so no need to panic just yet, says Kathriona Devereux
A pox on all our houses? Not quite, but virus is still a worry

A case of monkeypox, from which about 1% of cases can die. However, we shouldn’t compare it to Covid-19, says Kathriona Devereux

MONKEYPOX. Doesn’t sound great does it? Anything with ‘pox’ is to be generally avoided.

I’m on a media mailing list from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and my stomach lurched when an email with the subject line ‘DISEASE OUTBREAK NEWS: Monkeypox - United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ landed in my inbox last week.

Here we go again, I groaned.

As I scanned through the mail, the all to familiar language of a pandemic popped out - “6 laboratory confirmed cases”, “one probable case”, “no source of infection confirmed yet”, “infections seem to have been locally acquired”, “an incident team established to co-ordinate contact tracing efforts”.

My brain rebooted memories from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the 9 o’clock news carried stories of efforts to track down passengers on a bus from Dublin Airport who had shared the journey with a person who later developed Covid-19. Innocent times, before mass infection of Covid-19 became the norm.

Words that were less familiar in the WHO briefing were “vesicular rash” and “sylvatic zoonosis”. Vesicular rash means small fluid filled blisters, sylvatic zoonosis refers to a disease transferred from wild animals to humans. Monkeypox can also spread between people.

Incidental human infections of monkeypox usually occur in forested parts of central and west Africa and can be transmitted by exhaled droplets and by contact with infected skin lesions. 

Symptoms can be mild or severe, and lesions can be very itchy or painful, but usually resolve spontaneously within 2-3 weeks.

However, about 1% of cases can die from the disease due to lung complications.

Monkeypox is a bit of a misnomer because the source of the infection is likely to be from rodents, not monkeys. Contact with live and dead animals through hunting and consumption of wild game or bush meat are known risk factors. Again, visions of bats and the Wuhan wet market were coming to mind as I read.

The situation in the UK was described as “evolving rapidly” and by the next day 11 countries had reported 80 confirmed cases and 50 pending investigations.

Monkeypox is non-endemic in these countries, and therefore the situation is being described as “atypical”. I imagine “atypical” is epidemiologist language for “where the fresh hell are these cases coming from… I’m worn out from dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic… monkeypox better not become another global horror show!”

In fairness, this is not like January, 2020, when health workers were dealing with a never seen before illness, monkeypox is a well known and understood disease, not a novel one. So no need to panic just yet.

As the WHO was making monkeypox announcements, another branch of the United Nations, the World Meteorological Organisation, was launching the report on the State of the Global Climate 2021.

If you are a regular reader, you won’t be surprised to learn that greenhouse gas levels, sea level rises, ocean heat and ocean acidification all set new records in 2021 and the state of global climate is shocking. The time to panic was about 10 years ago.

In fact, ‘Atypical’ monkeypox outbreaks and climate change may be related because changes in the geographical spread of infectious diseases have long been predicted as a consequence of a warming planet.

For example, warmer and more humid conditions at higher latitude might allow the spread of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, resulting in an increase in malaria transmission in countries where it was not reported earlier.

A few things stood out to me when reading the 57-page report of depressing fact after depressing fact and distressing disaster after distressing disaster. Ireland is getting off lightly, so far.

During the abnormally warm summer in Europe last year, Northern Ireland set a new record of 31.3C at Castlederg on July 21 and two tropical nights were observed in Ireland that month, with daily minimum temperatures exceeding 20C in County Kerry.

These temperatures are nothing in comparison to the extreme weather events such as intense typhoons, droughts, wildfires, floods and extreme heat in countries like Yemen, Mozambique, Madagascar and Philippines, that are trying to cope with multiple weather disasters and millions of displaced people.

Other examples helped paint the grim picture.

The first record of rain, not snow, falling at the highest summit of Greenland. It didn’t make the western news cycle but a typhoon called In-fa, in the city of Zhengzhou, China, received more than its total annual average of rain in seven hours, resulting in 380 deaths.

Hurricane Ida in the U.S caused economic losses estimated at US$ 75 billion!

Some 584,000 people faced starvation and a total collapse of livelihoods, people mostly living in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen and Madagascar.

These grim realities were before the war in Ukraine.

The fragile global food system is creaking from the effects of climate change, Covid-19, and rising energy prices, but the loss of Ukraine’s enormous food exports are going to make things even worse in the coming year.

So, while we start hoping for a ‘good summer’, we must think of the billions of people worldwide facing an unrelenting summer of extreme weather events.

If the course of climate change is not diverted, Ireland may become what is called a lifeboat nation, a habitable refuge that will have to accommodate those displaced people from regions rendered uninhabitable.

As we grapple with the influx of refugees from Ukraine, helping to accommodate people fleeing drought, sea level rise or destructive weather is a scenario that is unimaginable.

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