The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said monkeypox appears to be spreading from person to person in England.
It is understood that the usually mild viral disease, which is endemic to West and Central Africa, spreads through close contact. Until early May, cases rarely appeared outside Africa and were usually linked to travel there, Reuters reported.
The agency said: “The current outbreak is the first time that the virus has been transmitted from person to person in England as no links to travel to an affected country have been identified.”
According to the UKHSA, the majority of cases in the UK – 132 – are in London, while 111 are known to be of gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men (GBMSM). Only two cases in women.
Recent foreign travel to a number of different countries in Europe within 21 days of onset of symptoms was reported by 34 confirmed cases, or about 18% of the 190 cases of the disease confirmed by the UK as of May 31.
So far, the UKHSA has identified links to gay bars, saunas and the use of dating apps in Britain and abroad.
The agency warned that “investigations are continuing, but at the present time, no factor or detection linking the cases has been identified.”
Kevin Fenton, regional director of public health in London, said monkeypox can affect anyone, but many of the latest diagnoses are from the GBMSM community – many of whom live in or have connections to London.
“As with any outbreak of a new disease, the risk of stigma and uncertainty is great,” he said.
UKHSA works with groups including the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV and the dating app Grindr to connect with sexual health services and the GBMSM community. She also encourages the LGBT Consortium and Pride to help with messaging in the coming weeks.
Monkeypox usually causes flu-like symptoms and pus-filled skin lesions that usually resolve on their own within weeks, but can kill a small portion of those infected.
UK health authorities are offering the North Bavarian vaccine, Imvanix, to contacts of confirmed or suspected cases.
Cases of monkeypox continue to rise outside Africa, mostly in Europe, and scientists are trying to determine the causes of its spread.
The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that it has so far received reports of more than 550 confirmed cases of the viral disease from 30 countries outside Africa.