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New MPOX Strain in DR Congo Deemed ‘Most Dangerous Yet’

Written by on June 27, 2024

Health officials monitoring the rapid spread of a new strain of the MPOX virus along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo describe the situation as “incredibly worrying.

The virus, known for causing lesions across the entire body, is severely affecting some individuals and has the potential to be fatal.

The current outbreak has primarily spread through sexual transmission, but there is evidence suggesting that this strain can also be transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact.

Global health experts are concerned about the new variant’s potential for cross-border and international transmission, with one expert describing it as the “most dangerous strain yet.”

In 2022, a global epidemic of mpox was successfully controlled through the vaccination of vulnerable populations. However, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), access to vaccines and treatments is limited, prompting local health officials to warn of the virus potentially spreading to neighboring countries.

“The disease can spread through airports. Individuals with lesions can cross borders without undergoing proper health checks,” stated Leandre Murhula Masirika from the health department in South Kivu province, one of the hardest-hit areas in the DRC.

“I fear it may cause further harm.”

‘Risk of Spread’: Cases of MPOX, formerly known as monkeypox, have been increasing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) over several decades.

Official data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates nearly 8,000 cases reported this year in DR Congo, with 384 deaths, with almost half of these fatalities occurring among children under 15 years old.

Of particular concern is an outbreak in South Kivu province, near the borders with Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda.

Recent laboratory tests on virus samples from the region have identified a new strain of MPOX, characterized by mutations that appear to enhance its transmissibility among humans.

In Kamituga, a mining town where the strain is believed to have emerged among sex workers in September 2023, cases are escalating. Recent infections include schoolchildren, healthcare workers caring for MPOX patients, and entire households.

The new strain has been detected in multiple border cities, including Goma, which shares a border with Rwanda.

The WHO has highlighted this development as “a heightened risk of cross-border and international transmission, potentially increasing the severity of illness.”

Scientists briefing journalists about the current outbreak expressed concerns that the new strain of MPOX appears to spread more easily, leading to more severe illness and increased fatalities among both children and adults.

There is also worry regarding asymptomatic transmission, where individuals without symptoms unknowingly spread the virus.

Reuters Young girl with monkeypox lesions on her arms and legs

Prof. Trudie Lang, a global health research professor at the University of Oxford, described the reported case numbers as “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“This strain is definitely the most dangerous yet. We don’t yet know the extent of mild cases that may be going undetected,” she emphasized.

It remains uncertain how quickly the new strain spreads and whether existing vaccines provide adequate protection. Trials will be necessary to determine this, a process that will require time.

The global outbreak of MPOX in 2022 predominantly affected Europe and America, driven by sexual transmission among men who have sex with men and caused by the Clade II MPOX virus.

In contrast, the new strain belongs to the more lethal Clade I and can be transmitted through non-sexual contact, increasing its potential danger. It has affected numerous children, even newborns infected during pregnancy.

Some infected pregnant women have experienced miscarriages, and several patients have developed long-term complications affecting their eyes, skin, and genitals.

One healthcare worker who contracted the virus while caring for a patient reportedly lost her eyesight as a result.

In DR Congo, the new strain has resulted in a mortality rate of 4% among adults and 10% among children affected so far.

Inadequate Vaccine Access

John Claude Udahemuka, a lecturer at the University of Rwanda monitoring the outbreak in eastern DR Congo, suggested that the initial carrier of the new strain was likely a man who had sexual encounters in Kamituga and subsequently in multiple locations.

The disease emerged during the rainy season when poor road conditions restricted movement. Udahemuka warned that the upcoming dry season, especially during school breaks, could facilitate further transmission.

Mr. Masirika from the South Kivu health department remarked, “Vaccinating sex workers and healthcare workers could significantly reduce cases.”

African researchers are urgently calling for enhanced research on the MPOX virus and expedited vaccine distribution.

Earlier this month, the WHO expressed concern about the ongoing development of the MPOX outbreak in DR Congo, citing limited public awareness, insufficient treatment kits and vaccines, and competing health priorities in the country as contributing factors to the emergence of the new strain.

The WHO emphasized that the risk associated with MPOX in DR Congo “remains high.”

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