LONDON (AP) — British health officials will begin offering vaccines to some men who have sex with men and are most at risk of contracting monkeypox, in an effort to curb the largest outbreak of the disease outside Africa.
Doctors may consider vaccination for some men at the highest risk of exposure, the UK’s Health Security Agency said in a statement on Tuesday. The agency identified those at highest risk as men who have sex with men and who have multiple partners, participate in group sex or visit locations where sex takes place on the premises.
“By expanding vaccine offerings to people at higher risk, we hope to break the transmission chains and help contain the outbreak,” said Dr. Mary Ramsay, head of immunization for the Health Security Agency.
Last month, a leading World Health Organization adviser said the monkeypox outbreak outside Africa was likely spread by: sexual activity by men at raves in Spain and Belgium.
Vaccines were previously only available to health professionals caring for monkey pox patients or to cleaners disinfecting areas infected with the virus. The vaccine was originally developed for smallpox, a related disease, but is thought to be about 85% effective against monkeypox.
To date, over 99% of monkey pox cases in Britain have been in males, and most of these are in males who are homosexual, bisexual or have sex with men. Scientists warn that anyone who comes in close, physical contact with someone infected with monkey pox or their clothing or bedding is at risk of the disease, regardless of their sexual orientation.
There are currently 793 cases of monkeypox in the UK, out of more than 2,100 cases in 42 countries worldwide. No deaths have been reported outside of Africa.
Until last month, monkeypox only caused major outbreaks in central and western areas Africa† the continent has so far reported more than 1,500 cases and 72 suspected deaths in a separate epidemic. Vaccines have never been used in Africa to fight monkey pox.
Last week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, described the ongoing spread of monkeypox in countries that have not seen the disease before as “unusual and worrying.”
Tedros organizes an expert meeting Thursday to decide whether the spreading monkeypox outbreak justifies a global emergency. That would give it the same designation as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing efforts to eradicate polio.