Mpox Outbreak in DRC Poses Significant Threat Globally – WHO

A year after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared mpox — formerly known as monkeypox — as no longer posing a global public health emergency, the global health body has confirmed sexual transmission of the disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the first time.

In a statement weekend, the WHO said the DRC is experiencing its biggest outbreak, even as scientists warn the development could make the outbreak more difficult to stop.

Nigerian virologist and WHO advisor, Prof Oyewale Tomori, said, “This is the first definitive proof of sexual transmission of monkeypox in Africa. The idea that this kind of transmission could not be happening here has now been debunked.”

Tomori warned that the figures were likely an underestimate and had implications for the rest of Africa.

He warned that driving people at risk for the virus underground would make the disease harder to curb.

The WHO said the risk of mpox spreading to other countries in Africa and globally was significant,and could pose severe consequences than the worldwide epidemic last year.

Tomori lamented that while the mpox outbreaks in Europe and North America prompted mass immunisation campaigns among affected populations, no such plans were being proposed for Africa.

“Despite the thousands of cases in Congo, no vaccines have arrived. Even after mpox epidemics subsided in the West, few shots or treatments were made available for Africa.

“We have been saying for years in Africa that monkeypox is a problem,” he said. “Now that sexual transmission has been confirmed here, this should be a signal to everyone to take it much more seriously.”

Mpox is an infectious disease caused by monkeypox virus (MPXV), which is endemic in densely forested regions of West, Central and East Africa, particularly in the northern and central regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Eleven of the 26 provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are identified as endemic for mpox, but in more recent years the total number of mpox cases and the number of provinces reporting mpox has been expanding, to 22 provinces as of November 2023.

There are two known clades of MPXV: clade I, previously known as the Congo Basin clade; and clade II, previously called the West African clade; clade II further has two subclades: clade IIa and clade IIb. Before 2018, very few cases were reported outside of the African continent: eight international travellers returning from endemic countries and one outbreak related to imported animals.

Since 2022, an epidemic of clade IIb MPXV has been ongoing globally, affecting many countries outside the African continent that had never reported mpox previously. The spread of this epidemic was mainly driven by transmission via sexual contact among men who have sex with men.