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EXPLAINED: What is monkeypox and what is Switzerland doing about it?

Switzerland has reported its first monkeypox patient on Saturday, but with over 80 cases across the world to date, Swiss officials are preparing to handle the eventual increase in the number of infections.

EXPLAINED: What is monkeypox and what is Switzerland doing about it?
This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows mature, oval-shaped monkeypox virions. Photo: Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner/CDC/AP

The first case so far was detected in Bern in a person who was “exposed to the virus abroad”, according to the statement by cantonal officials, who did not specify in which country the patient could have been infected.

The traveller is receiving outpatient treatment and self-isolating. Close contacts have been informed through contact tracing.

READ MORE: Switzerland confirms first monkeypox case

While Swiss health officials currently assess the risk of contracting monkeypox as low outside rural areas of Central and West Africa, “the epidemiological data is still limited”, said Céline Gardiol, head of the vaccination section at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).

“However, it can be assumed that more infections can also occur here, as is the case in other countries”, she added.

What measures are Swiss health authorities taking?

For the time being, “the epidemiological situation is being monitored in cooperation with international health authorities and experts, according to FOPH’s vice-president Linda Nartey.

FOPH is also recommending that the cantons carry out contact tracing in proven cases and isolate those who test positive — all of which has an eerie sense of déjà-vu.

“The cantonal systems are in place and ready to be deployed. Quarantines are not currently planned”.

There is no specific vaccine against monkeypox, tough first- and second-generation smallpox vaccines provided effective protection. But they were discontinued in 1972 when the World Health Organisation declared that the disease was successfully eradicated.

There is now also a third-generation smallpox vaccine that is approved for adults in Europe but not yet in Switzerland, as the drug regulatory body, Swissmedic, has not received any approval request from the manufacturers.

However, Narty said Switzerland is examining the possibility of buying these vaccines.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox, Affenpocken in German, vaiolo delle scimmie in Italian and variole du singe in French is a zoonotic virus (a virus spread from animals to humans) that most often occurs in areas of tropical rainforest in Central and West Africa.

However, it is occasionally found in other regions, and cases have recently been discovered in Europe, North America, and Australia.

The name monkeypox originates from the initial discovery of the virus in monkeys in a Danish laboratory in 1958, according to WHO. The first human case was identified in a child in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970.

Monkeypox virus is transmitted from one person to another by close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials such as bedding. The incubation period of monkeypox is usually from 6 to 13 days but can range from 5 to 21 days.

People can also be infected through contact with the lesions of the skin, blood, tissues, or excretions of infected animals (mainly rodents) and by handling the meat of sick animals.

The disease is not known to be sexually transmitted. Still, close contact between people during sex can make the transmission of the virus easier.

How contagious and dangerous is monkeypox ?

According to FOPH, immunocompromised people, as well as children and young adults who have become infected seem to have a higher risk of a severe course of the disease, whose symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and chickenpox-like skin rash.

Most people affected by the disease recover within a few weeks.

It takes a close, direct contact with the infected person, for instance by touching skin lesions, to become contaminated. Infectious disease specialist Jan Fehr confirmed that monkeypox virus is not transmitted through air, like coronavirus.

Many of the cases presented are in men who have sexual relations with other men and health authorities have asked for extra care and are studying current cases.

And this brings is to the question that is likely on everyone’s mind right now.

Is monkeypox as contagious as Covid and will there be another pandemic?

“Based on what is known about the virus, one can assume that it is less transmissible than the coronavirus”, Nartey pointed out.

She added that at the moment there is no indication of another pandemic emerging in Switzerland or elsewhere.

However, the evolution of the disease must be closely observed, she said.

“We have to watch the outbreaks and in each case carry out contact tracing immediately to quickly interrupt any transmission chains”.

Tracing became widespread during the Covid pandemic to identify, and quarantine, people who were in contact with an infected person.

READ MORE: Q&A: How will Switzerland’s coronavirus tracing app work?

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HEALTH

Reader question: Can Brits in Switzerland donate blood?

For many years, people coming from the United Kingdom were banned from donating their blood in Switzerland. This is what the situation is right now.

Reader question: Can Brits in Switzerland donate blood?

The ‘blood ban’ that extended to British citizens or those of any nationality who had lived in the UK (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), was implemented for safety purposes.

The reason was the so-called mad cow disease (BSE), which was particularly rampant in Great Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.

Many people contracted and even died from the cattle-borne condition known scientifically as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.

It is believed that one in 2,000 people in the UK is a carrier of the disease. 

While most of them got BSE from eating contaminated beef, “experience tells us that the disease could be transmitted from human to human via blood”, according to a BBC report.

As a result, a number of governments, including the Swiss, prohibited people from the UK to donate blood.

However, this rule is no longer in force in Switzerland.

According to Geneva’s university hospital (HUG), which is a member of the national blood transfusion network Blutspende and follows the same rules, only people who had lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996 for more than six months at a stretch still can’t donate blood.

This is a period when the BSE outbreak was at its worst in the UK.

If you had lived in Great Britain prior to or after that date, you can safely donate your blood.

Have there been any BSE cases in Switzerland?

About 465 cases had been reported in Switzerland between 1990 and 2020, with less than 20 deaths.

There are still isolated cases of BSE throughout Europe, but they are no longer a cause for as much concern as previously.

Can everyone donate blood in Switzerland?

Gay men are still not allowed to do so.

Under Swiss law, any man who has had sex with another man is prevented from donating blood for 12 months — the legislation was introduced during the the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, while the 12-month rule was introduced in 2017.

However, in March 2020, the National Council’s Commission for Social Security and Health said the rule was “no longer appropriate” and filed a motion to rescind it. 

READ MORE: Switzerland to clear way for gay and bisexual men to donate blood

Who else is prevented from donating blood?

According to Blutspende, these medical and other conditions disqualify people from donating blood in Switzerland:

  • Positive test for HIV (AIDS), syphilis, hepatitis C and hepatitis B
  • Prostitution
  • Past or present drug use by injection
  • Blood transfusion after 01.01.1980

These reasons could be a cause for deferral though not an outright ban:

  • Stay during the past six months in a region where malaria is endemic, without any health problem (in case of illness with fever, tell the doctor at the blood donation centre).
  • Suffering from a sexually transmitted disease during the past 12 months
  • Change of sexual partner during the past four months
  • Sexual intercourse with multiple partners during the past 12 months
  • Stay of six months or longer in the past 12 months in countries with a high HIV-prevalence

More information about blood donation in Switzerland can be found here.

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