Chief Medical Officer makes big call on monkeypox in Australia

paul kelly chief medical officer monkeypox mpx declaration australia cases outbreak
Images: Australian government, CDC

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer has declared monkeypox a “communicable disease incident of national significance” in Australia, as health groups call for vaccination for at-risk groups.

Since May, the rare virus has spread in 71 non-endemic countries globally, with authorities recording more than 20,300 cases overseas.

In Australia, there have been 44 cases, the majority of which have been returned international travellers.

The virus doesn’t spread easily and resolves on its own in most people. Symptoms can range from mild to very painful.

However, monkeypox can potentially be serious for some, including the immunocompromised.

On Thursday, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly (pictured) declared monkeypox a disease of “national significance”.

The declaration means the virus now requires national policies and messaging, or the deployment of resources across Australia.

It comes after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern at the weekend.

Monkeypox is ‘far less harmful than Covid’

However, Paul Kelly said it’s “important to note” monkeypox is “far less harmful than COVID-19.”

“MPX is also not transmitted in the same way as COVID-19 – and is far less transmissible,” he said.

He said there have been no deaths reported outside of countries where the virus was already endemic.

Kelly said Australia’s National Medical Stockpile has monkeypox treatments, such as antivirals, available for states and territories.

“MPX’s rash and flu-like symptoms are relatively mild. In most cases, [the symptoms] resolve themselves within two to four weeks without the need for specific treatments,” he said.

In Australia, Dr Kelly said most cases of monkeypox have been among people aged 21 to 40 years.

“The experience internationally and in Australia to date is most cases have been among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men,” he said.

“Although MPX is not usually considered a sexually transmissible infection, physical contact with an infected person during sexual intercourse carries a significant risk of transmission.

“Intimate physical contact such as hugging, kissing and sexual activities represent a risk of infection. Infectious skin sores [are] the likely mode of transmission.

“The rash usually occurs on the face before spreading to other parts of the body, including the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

“However, in this outbreak it is being seen especially on the genital and perianal regions of affected people.”

Dr Kelly said the rash can “vary from person to person and take on the appearance of pimples, blisters or sores.”

“The flu-like symptoms often include fever, chills, body aches, headaches, swollen lymph nodes and tiredness,” he said.

Australia recommends vaccines for gay and bi men and other groups

Dr Paul Kelly said Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) had also responded to Australia’s monkeypox cases.

He said ATAGI has updated clinical guidance on vaccination against monkeypox to include a crucial additional vaccine against the virus.

It comes after LGBTIQ+ health organisations this week urged the federal government to prioritise a monkeypox vaccine program.

Australia has existing supplies of an older monkeypox vaccine, ACAM2000, but it isn’t suitable for people who are immunocompromised or living with HIV. People with HIV are at higher risk of severe illness from monkeypox.

Immunocompromised people require a newer vaccine, Jynneos, which is being rolled out in countries overseas.

This week, ATAGI said limited supplies of the Jynneos vaccine had been secured by the Commonwealth and some states and territories.

ATAGI said gay and bisexual men, sex workers and health workers will be prioritised as they are at-risk populations.

But widespread vaccination isn’t recommended due to the low risk of infection and limited vaccine supply, ATAGI said.

Australia ‘must arrest the virus and prevent it becoming endemic’

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler said Australia was “actively pursuing supplies of [Jynneos vaccine] well before the WHO declaration was made, recognising there is limited supply and significant global demand”.

“This is in collaboration with the states and territories which are the distribution point for vaccinations and post-exposure treatment,” Butler said.

Australian Federation of Aids Organisations deputy CEO Heath Paynter said the government must act “to arrest the virus and to prevent it becoming endemic”.

“Fundamental to this is obtaining a supply of vaccines for gay and bisexual men at risk of monkeypox,” he said.

Paynter said the government must acquire and supply the Jynneos vaccine, which is the only “acceptable option”.

“Australia has a golden opportunity to step in and stop monkeypox in its tracks. But it could quickly evaporate,” Paynter said.

“And once it does, it’s lost, as we’ve seen in Montreal, London, New York and Madrid. [These are] cities with hundreds of cases of community transmission.”

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