In May, when monkeypox researchers began to spread unexpectedly, many public health specialists were surprised to see the rise. However, for the researchers from Central West Africa, who have tracked and deeply studied viral diseases for years, the prominent shock was how accurate their predictions turned out to be.
The Severe Effect
Currently, with more than 80,000 confirmed cases in over 100 countries, the rise of monkeypox is a gut-wrenching reminder of what happens when warnings go unheeded.
Scientists like Adesola Yinka-Ogunleye and Anne Rimoin, both epidemiologists who have worked on the outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 2002. The duo has hoarded decades of experience investigating the spread of the virus. Their fieldwork has helped to inform the global response.
Yinka-Ogunleye, says, “We had always warned the favorable circumstances, such as what led to this outbreak, the disease might pose a huge threat to global health.” She led the country’s investigation and response to a monkeypox outbreak in the year 2017.
Adding to that Rimoin says, “There are lots of questions that we need to answer, and we will in due time.”
The Journey Towards the Findings
In September 2017, when Yinka-Ogunleye accompanied by her team traveled to Bayelsa in southern Nigeria to investigate the appearance of people with a mysterious skin rash that were resisting any diagnosis and thereby treatment.
The team suspected that the rashes were due to monkeypox, a virus related to variola that causes smallpox. However, the country hadn’t recorded a single case of monkeypox in about 40 years. Based on the symptoms, they ruled out smallpox.
Testing could not be done in Nigeria itself and would take a few weeks. In the meanwhile. The word of the ongoing investigation leaked, and the people became more cautious about the arising potential health crisis.
The scientists turned to go on the radio and spread the word, about the initial symptoms that led to the cause. They advised people to come forward, if any similar kinds of symptoms were identified, especially without any further ado.
The gamble by the scientists played off well. They were not only right about monkeypox but their public messaging uncovered additional cases within the community. In a year, the team successfully identified 122 confirmed and probable cases with about 7 deaths.
Almost 70% of the cases were men and predominantly adults, which suggested that immunity conferred by the smallpox vaccine in the 1980s was seen waning in the group. The team learned the reason behind monkeypox and why it disappeared in Nigeria after years and later completely vanished.
Now the current spread is considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a global public health emergency. Yinka-Ogunleye and Rimoin said, “There has never been a greater need for studies to understand its magnitude in Africa. Monkeypox is endemic in at least eight countries, including Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, and Liberia. The cases have been reported in these and others across the continent during the current global outbreak.”
Yinka-Ogunleye says, “The studies of seroprevalence are going on and the number of people who have antibodies to the virus, and the key priority is understanding the true extent of the outbreak in Nigeria and throughout Africa. This would reveal the proportion of people who have been exposed.”
Yinka-Ogunleye and Rimoin both agree that more support for disease surveillance, including laboratory diagnostics, is needed. Transporting samples from wherever cases occur in the DRC to a major city like Kinshasa is difficult, if not impossible.
Rimoin says, “Although there is a way to go. I hope the network of collaborators and the roll-out of further studies will speed progress.” She concludes by saying, “We hope to get answers.”
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