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WHO convenes meetings, steps up response on 'atypical' surge in monkeypox cases. Here's what we know.

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The World Health Organization on Friday said it was stepping up efforts to understand and combat monkeypox as nearly a dozen countries are investigating "atypical" outbreaks. The organization said the ongoing situation is being discussed at several meetings.

"There are about 80 confirmed cases so far, and 50 pending investigations. More cases are likely to be reported as surveillance expands," the health agency said in a news release.

The spike in monkeypox cases in Europe and North America has perplexed public health professionals because the rare disease is typically found in central and west Africa — and human-to-human transmission is usually considered uncommon.

The U.S. has recorded two cases of monkeypox — in Massachusetts and in New York City.

The list of countries with at least one monkeypox case also includes: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Those at highest risk are people who closely interact with someone infected with the generally mild disease.

"This includes health workers, household members and sexual partners," WHO said.

But experts say the outbreak is not likely to evolve into a global health crisis because the disease is not easily transmitted and reported cases remain relatively low.

"It doesn't have that great a transmission ability," said Dr. Seth Blumberg, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.

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“Monkeypox usually does not occur globally,” Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told USA TODAY. Rimoin, who has extensively studied monkeypox and other infectious diseases in Central Africa, said such outbreaks are "rare and unusual occurrence."

Although most people recover from the virus, it can be dangerous and fatal, though typically far fewer than 1% of cases in areas with high-quality medical care, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Here’s what you need to know about the disease:

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare disease that comes from the same family of viruses as smallpox, which includes cowpox, camelpox, horsepox and others. The virus was first discovered in 1958 in colonies of research monkeys, according to the CDC.

The human first case of the virus was identified in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most monkeypox infections today still occur there, but the disease has also been reported in several other central and western African countries, the CDC said.

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How does transmission occur?

Monkeypox usually spreads to people from infected animals like rodents. Human-to-human transmission is possible but less common, the World Health Organization said. The virus can also spread through contaminated materials.

The main disease carrier of monkeypox is still unknown, although some experts suspect African rodents play a part in transmission, the CDC said.

In parts of central and west Africa, people can be exposed to the virus through bites or scratches from rodents and small mammals, preparing wild game, or having contact with an infected animal or animal products.

The virus doesn’t spread easily between people, although human-to-human transmission typically happens through large respiratory droplets. Those droplets typically can’t travel more than a few feet, so prolonged face-to-face contact is required to spread monkeypox, according to the CDC.

Britain’s Health Security Agency said the country’s latest cases have been seen “predominantly in gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men.” Monkeypox is not known to be a sexually transmitted disease, but it can spread through close contact with infected people, their bodily fluids, clothing or bedsheets, according to the CDC.

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What are the symptoms of monkeypox?

Monkeypox typically begins with flulike symptoms and swollen lymph nodes, the CDC said. Monkeypox symptoms are typically similar but milder than smallpox symptoms.

Early symptoms include fever, muscle aches, chills and fatigue. In more severe cases, a rash can develop, often on the face and genitals, resembling those seen in chickenpox and smallpox.

Painful and itchy lesions can form across the body, before eventually becoming scabs and falling off.

Those infected with monkeypox usually begin experiencing symptoms seven to 14 days after infection, the CDC said. The illness usually lasts several weeks.

How dangerous is monkeypox?

Most people recover from monkeypox within weeks, but the disease can be fatal, according to the World Health Organization.

Scientists have identified two forms of the virus: the West African clade and the Congo Basin clade. The West African clade is less fatal, with deaths occurring in about one percent of infections. The Congo Basin clade can cause death in as many as 1 in 10 people who contract the disease, the World Health Organization said.

While data is preliminary, Rimoin says the current outbreaks appear to be connected with the less-deadly West African clade.

Jimmy Whitworth, a professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Reuters that the virus likely won’t reach the same level of infections and deaths COVID-19 has.

"This isn't going to cause a nationwide epidemic like COVID did, but it's a serious outbreak of a serious disease – and we should take it seriously," Whitworth said.

Rimoin cautioned against comparisons to COVID-19 – in part because monkeypox is not a novel virus: "We’re not dealing with a completely novel pathogen that has never been studied before.”

Rimoin said monkeypox is generally thought to have a low reproductive number, based on previous outbreaks — meaning rapid spread is believed to be unlikely. But further study is needed because the spread of the virus can vary based on a wide variety of conditions.

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Is there a vaccine for monkeypox?

Yes. A vaccine developed against smallpox has been approved for monkeypox, and several antivirals also appear to be effective. But according to the CDC, there is no proven, safe treatment for monkeypox virus infection.

Rimoin said that the eradication of smallpox has left the globe vulnerable to outbreaks of related viruses, like monkeypox. Since smallpox vaccines aren't widely given, the immune protection they provide is lacking for billions around the globe.

Have there been monkeypox outbreaks in the US before?

The CDC says monkeypox cases in the United States are rare. Wednesday’s case in Massachusetts is the first U.S. monkeypox case this year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Texas and Maryland each reported a case in 2021 in people who traveled to Nigeria.

In 2003, health experts identified 47 confirmed and probable cases of monkeypox across six states – Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin – according to the CDC. Officials traced the cases back to pet prairie dogs that were infected after being housed near imported small mammals from Ghana.

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The 2003 outbreak was the first time human monkeypox was reported outside Africa.

No deaths occurred as a result of that outbreak, Rimoin said.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said Wednesday’s case poses no risk to the public. But Rimoin said the recent cases are an “important reminder that an infection anywhere is potentially an infection everywhere.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Monkeypox virus outbreak 2022: What is it? What are the symptoms?