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More than 50 members of the public could have been exposed to a rare viral infection, health officials fear after the first case of monkeypox was diagnosed in the UK.
A Nigerian naval officer who came to the UK to take part in an Ministry of Defence (MoD) training exercise at a Royal Navy base in Cornwall was confirmed to have the disease on Friday.
He flew from Nigeria, where he is believed to have contracted the disease, to London on a commercial flight last weekend.
Public Health England (PHE) have contacted passengers on the plane who were sat close to the man to warn them that they have been exposed to the infection.
The risk to the wider public is considered to be very low, PHE said.
The Nigerian naval officer began to develop symptoms of the virus, which has a mortality rate of between one and ten per cent, while on the British base.
On Friday after his diagnosis was confirmed the patient was moved to the infectious disease unit at the Royal Free Hospital in London. He was said to be in a stable condition.
Monkeypox is a rare viral infection, similar to smallpox but not as deadly. It is usually mild and self-limiting with most people recovering within a few weeks, but severe illness and death can occur.
Monkeypox | Key facts
- Monkeypox is a rare disease affecting people in the tropical rainforests of central and west Africa
- It is similar to smallpox although not as deadly
- The virus is transmitted from various wild animals such as the rope squirrel or sooty mangabey but can also be spread between humans
- The disease is not highly infectious and only those who have been in close contact with a patient, such as a health care worker or family member, are at risk
- The disease begins with a fever and then a rash spreads over the body, mainly to the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. It also affects the eyes and can lead to blindness
- Most people recover within three weeks but up to 10 per cent of those affected die
- There is no treatment or vaccine available although a smallpox vaccine is currently being trialled
PHE has contacted 50 people it considers to be at risk, including those sitting closest to the patient on the flight from Abuja to Heathrow on Sunday September 2.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said “all necessary steps” were being taken but that no other personnel had developed symptoms.
The initial symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion.
A painful rash with open sores can develop, often beginning on the face, then spreading to other parts of the body.
The rash changes and goes through different stages before finally forming a scab, which later falls off. If the disease infects the eye it can lead to scarring of the cornea and, in some cases, blindness.
Dr Michael Jacobs, clinical director of infection at the Royal Free said: “Monkeypox is, in most cases, a mild condition which will resolve on its own and have no long-term effects on a person’s health. Most people recover within several weeks.
“It is a rare disease caused by monkeypox virus, and has been reported mainly in central and west African countries.
“It does not spread easily between people and the risk of transmission to the wider public is very low. We are using strict isolation procedures in hospital to protect our staff and patients.” Dr Nick Phin, deputy director of the national infection service at PHE said:
“Public Health England is following up those who have had close contact with the patient to offer advice and to monitor them as necessary.
“PHE and the NHS have well established and robust infection control procedures for dealing with cases of imported infectious disease and these will be strictly followed to minimise the risk of transmission.”
Monkeypox was first observed in the 1960s in monkeys brought to Europe from Africa, with the first human case diagnosed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970.
Nigeria is experiencing a particularly virulent outbreak with 89 people infected and six deaths since 2017.
Scientists are still unsure if the disease is transmitted by monkeys or via rodents.