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New variant of mpox virus causes outbreak in mining town in DRC

16/05/2024 09:54

International health community raises alarm

Researchers from the Congolese National Institute of Biomedical Research (INRB) and the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp, discovered a mutated strain of mpox virus during an outbreak in Kamituga, a densely populated mining town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The new variant of the virus is transmitted mainly through sexual contact and could potentially spread to surrounding countries. The World Health Organization is calling for action to stop further spread. 

In 2022, the West African variant of the mpox virus, clade II, caused a global outbreak. At the same time, another, more aggressive variant of the virus, clade I, was circulating in Central Africa. After a few months, infections have declined in Europe, but in Central Africa, and especially in the DRC, the virus has been claiming more and more victims. In October 2023, an outbreak in Kamituga, where mpox does not normally occur, saw the first cases of this disease.  Within 5 months, the new variant of the virus spread rapidly, especially among adolescents and young adults, nearly 30% of whom are sex workers.

Risks to surrounding areas and beyond

The outbreak has the potential to spread rapidly beyond the current area, with risks to surrounding areas and even beyond the country's borders. This threat is compounded by the highly mobile population in the region, including miners and sex workers, which significantly increases the likelihood of the virus spreading.

New transmission pattern

The different transmission pattern of the new variant makes the situation even more worrying. Unlike the usual spread of the virus in the DRC, through animal-to-human transmission, this variant appears to spread mainly through sexual contact between humans. Moreover, mutations are present that cause the virus to be undetectable by some of the existing PCR tests, complicating the monitoring of the outbreak.

Quick

"With the growing concern about the sexual transmission of this variant, there‚Äôs a pressing need for a new strategy that integrates mpox into HIV and STI prevention programmes. In doing so, it is important to target key groups and avoid stigma at all costs," said last author of the study Professor Placide Mbala-Kingebeni of the INRB. 

Urgent need for measures and vaccines

"Along with our partners in the DRC, we are doing everything we can to investigate the outbreak and assess whether a vaccination campaign can curb the spread of this more aggressive variant," says Laurens Liesenborghs, professor of Clinical Emerging Infectious diseases at ITM. "If we do not strengthen monitoring and contact tracing and do not deploy vaccines that we also use in Europe, there is a risk that the local outbreak will spread nationally and even internationally. Moreover, we are dealing with obstacles, such as logistical challenges and insufficient funding of the local health infrastructure."

The project came about with support from the Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid (DGD) and the Fund for Scientific Research (FWO).