Monkeypox is not a new disease in India and the world and it has been around since 1970s, the Union Health Minister Mansukh Madaviya told the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday. In a bid to allay fears around the virus and its spread, the Union Health Minister further said the ICMR has already isolated a virus strain, and the Ministry is open to working with vaccine makers to develop a cure.

According to the Minister’s response, there have been eight cases of monkeypox in the country till August 1, which includes one death. Many of these have a history of foreign travel. The first monkeypox case was reported in India from Kerala on July 14.

So far, five cases (including one death) have been reported from Kerala and three from Delhi. Monitoring, surveillance and contact tracing have already begun, while guidelines have also been issued to State governments on the matter. India, he said, began taking preparations to tackle the virus by the time other countries started reporting the disease around May this year.

“Monkeypox is not new disease in India or across the world. Around the 1970s onwards it has been reported in Africa and in several other countries. At present, some of the countries were reporting the disease in May and WHO started taking notice of it,” he said adding that, “the Covid crisis has already taught us how to be prepared in advance. So, when other countries began reporting the virus, we were already taking preventive measures”.

Monkeypox is a viral zoonosis that gets transmitted to humans from animals, with symptoms similar to those seen in smallpox patients, albeit clinically less severe.

The virus is endemic to regions like West and Central Africa, but lately has been reported across the US and European nations. So far, 18,000 monkeypox cases have been reported in 78 countries.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared monkeypox a global public health emergency of international concern.

Work on with vaccine makers

Mandaviya, during his response, said his Ministry was open to working with vaccine-makers to develop a cure for monkeypox.

The Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Virology, Pune, has already isolated the virus and has invited an Expression of Interest (EoI), proposing to handover the strain to industry partners for development of indigenous vaccine and diagnostic kits for the disease.

In the absence of clear studies on the virus, and considering its similarity to smallpox, some of the countries are “administering small pox vaccines to close contacts of those infected with monkeypox”.

“There are no clear and detailed studies on monkeypox or the impact of smallpox vaccine’s efficacy on it yet. So, because of the virus’s similarity to smallpox, some countries are administering smallpox vaccine to close contacts of the infected. The WHO has also said that mass vaccine is not necessary. Only close contacts of an infected person need to be vaccinated. In India, we have expressed an EOI to give them the isolated virus strain to vaccine-makers who want to work on it,” he said.

Delhi takes action

Meanwhile, Delhi has directed three private hospitals to create at least 10 isolation rooms for infected individuals — five for suspect cases — and five to management of confirmed cases.

In fact, Mandaviya, while addressing queries in the Rajya Sabha said, monkeypox is caused due to “deep contact”.

According to Avi Kumar, Senior Consultant, Pulmonology, Fortis Escorts, Okhla, “another medical threat is on the work”. “The current outbreak has been tied to the West African strain of the virus, in which hospitalisation has been rare. The best way to protect is to avoid contact with anyone who has symptoms and practice hand hygiene regularly,” he said.

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