WHO officials could not rule out a pandemic but said this scenario is unlikely (Picture: Reuters/Getty/EPA)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it is too soon to tell if the current monkeypox outbreak could evolve into a pandemic.

However it played down this scenario and said there is now a ‘window of opportunity’ to contain it.

More than 300 suspected and confirmed cases of monkeypox – a usually mild illness that spreads through close contact and can cause flu-like symptoms and pus-filled skin lesions – have been reported in May, mostly in Europe and North America.

Yesterday a further 71 cases were detected in the UK, raising the total to 179.

The virus is not typically found outside of central and western Africa, where the disease is endemic, raising fears of community transmission.

Scientists have been left puzzled by the unusual spread, which experts say is not linked to travel to Africa.

Asked if the outbreak could escalate into a pandemic, the WHO’s technical lead for monkeypox, Rosamund Lewis, said: ‘The answer is we don’t know, but we don’t think so.’

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The WHO said the majority of cases have been reported among men who identify as gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men.

Dr Lewis said this was important to describe ‘because it appears to be an increase in a mode of transmission that may have been under-recognised in the past’.

She told the briefing: ‘At the moment, we are not concerned about a global pandemic.

 ‘We are concerned that individuals may acquire this infection through high-risk exposure if they don’t have the information they need to protect themselves.’

Dr Lewis warned that anyone is at potential risk of the disease, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Other experts have pointed out that it may be accidental that the disease was first picked up in gay and bisexual men, saying it could quickly spill over into other groups if it is not curbed.

People with more serious illness may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body (Picture: CDC)

It is still not clear whether monkeypox is being transmitted by sex or just the close contact between people who have sexual intercourse.

Dr Lewis offered recommendations for people to lower their risk of infection, including avoiding those with confirmed or suspected cases of monkeypox and – if caring for someone with the disease, avoiding skin-to-skin contact, washing hands regularly, wearing a mask and cleaning contaminated surfaces.

‘Collectively, the world has an opportunity to stop this outbreak,’ Lewis said.

‘There’s a window of opportunity where this can be contained.’

The strain of virus implicated in the outbreak is understood to kill a small fraction of those infected, but no deaths have been reported so far.

Dr Lewis said that while previous cases of monkeypox in central and western Africa have been relatively contained, it was not clear if people could spread monkeypox without symptoms or if the disease might be airborne, like measles or Covid-19.

Once monkeypox has been contracted, the duration of the rash emerging and scabs falling off is recognised as the infectious period, but there is limited information on whether there is any spread of the virus by people who are not symptomatic, she said.

On Sunday, the WHO upgraded the threat from the virus to ‘moderate’, saying the ‘sudden appearance’ and ‘wide geographic scope’ of cases suggests widespread human transmission of the virus.

Scientists are looking into what might explain this unusual surge of cases (Picture: Reuters)

It warned the surge in infections suggests the virus ‘may have been circulating unrecognised for several weeks or longer’ and that there is a ‘high risk’ of further spread.

The global health body is now considering whether the outbreak should be assessed as a ‘potential public health emergency of international concern’ or PHEIC. Such a declaration, as was done for Covid and Ebola, would help accelerate research and funding to contain the disease.

However, the WHO stressed the virus should not be mistaken for Covid-19 and that the risks to the general public remain low.

‘We don’t want people to panic or be afraid and think that it’s like Covid or maybe worse,’ Sylvie Briand, the WHO’s director of epidemic and pandemic preparedness and prevention said during a briefing on the outbreak.

‘This monkeypox disease is not Covid-19, it is a different virus.’

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