Could Africa’s Deadly New MPOX Strain Spark a Global Pandemic?

A dangerous new strain of mpox, particularly deadly in children, is rapidly spreading in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), causing concern among health experts and the World Health Organisation (WHO) about the possibility of another global outbreak.

This mutated strain, known as clade 1b, emerged in September 2023 among sex workers in a DRC mining town. Previously associated with animal contact, this virus now spreads through both sexual and non-sexual human contact, making it more easily transmissible and more dangerous.

How is this mpox outbreak different?

Mpox, formerly called monkeypox, is a viral infection that manifests with symptoms like fever, chills, fatigue, and a characteristic rash. The current outbreak in the DRC involves clade 1b, which has higher mortality rates in both adults and children, as well as causing multiple miscarriages in pregnant women.

A child with mpox during the 2022 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. File Image/Reuters
A child with mpox during the 2022 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. File Image/Reuters

During a video call with journalists, John Claude Udahemuka, a lecturer at the University of Rwanda, described this variant as the most dangerous of all known strains of mpox due to its transmission, spread, and symptoms.

Trudie Lang, a global health professor at Oxford University, highlighted the urgent need for research to assess the effectiveness of current vaccines and treatments against this new strain.

Scope of the outbreak

As of this year, nearly 8,000 mpox cases have been reported in the DRC, resulting in 384 deaths, with children under 15 accounting for almost half of the fatalities. Last year saw over 14,500 infections and 654 deaths in the country, the highest numbers ever reported in the WHO’s African region.

The outbreak is especially alarming in South Kivu province, near borders with Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, where the virus has been detected in several cities, including Goma.

Nearly 8,000 mpox cases have been reported in DRC this year, with 384 deaths, almost half of which were children under 15. File Image/Reuters
Nearly 8,000 mpox cases have been reported in DRC this year, with 384 deaths, almost half of which were children under 15. File Image/Reuters

The WHO has warned about the renewed risk of the new strain spreading across borders and internationally, potentially leading to severe illness.

The virus is spreading in schools, healthcare facilities, and households, with reports of asymptomatic transmission among individuals unaware of their infection. Lang suggests that the reported cases may only be the beginning, with many more mild cases likely going unnoticed.

Risk of global spread

Experts have differing opinions on the possibility of another global mpox outbreak. While infectious disease physician Jake Dunning believes it is possible, he emphasizes the difficulty in predicting the likelihood due to the need for understanding international transmission networks.

A doctor does his morning rounds, followed by nurses and trainee doctors at the Yakusu General Hospital, in Tshopo, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 5, 2022. File Image/Reuters
A doctor does his morning rounds, followed by nurses and trainee doctors at the Yakusu General Hospital, in Tshopo, Democratic Republic of Congo, October 5, 2022. File Image/Reuters

Lang emphasizes the need to monitor vulnerable populations in Africa while stressing the urgency of trials to determine vaccine efficacy against the new strain.

Crisis response

The lack of access to vaccines and treatments in the DRC is a major concern, with limited public awareness, treatment kits, and other health priorities contributing to the outbreak. The WHO underscores the importance of addressing the surge in mpox cases in Africa.

Rosamund Lewis, the WHO’s technical lead for mpox, emphasizes the critical need for action to combat the outbreak, with African researchers calling for accelerated research and vaccine distribution.

A health worker prepares a dose of the mpox vaccine. File Image/AFP
A health worker prepares a dose of the mpox vaccine. File Image/AFP

Udahemuka urges countries to prepare for virus spread and to support local research and response efforts to prevent further transmission.

Also Read: What is monkeypox, how is it transmitted?

With the high mortality rate among children and pregnant women, urgent action is crucial to contain the spread of the virus through various forms of contact.

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