Monkeypox:  Another wake-up call? | Jonathan L. Mayuga



The World Health Organization (WHO) has convened the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee over the spread of the monkeypox virus to 32 non-endemic countries.

The experts’ meeting scheduled on June 23 aims to assess whether the continuing outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern, the highest level of global alert. This is the alert level was used for the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to grip communities in the Philippines.

According to the WHO, this year  more than 1,600 confirmed cases and almost 1,500 suspected cases  of monkeypox have been reported to WHO across 39 countries, including seven countries where monkeypox has been detected for years, and 32 newly affected nations.

A total of 72 deaths have been reported from previously affected countries so far.

Monkeypox alert

The Philippines remains monkeypox free but health officials are on heightened alert and are monitoring the country’s borders to prevent a possible outbreak from happening in the country.

The Department of Health (DOH) has issued public statements that Philippine hospitals are ready for monkeypox cases, and is working on the allocation of isolation facilities amid the threat of the virus.

DOH Field Implementation and Coordination Team and the One Hospital Command Center are working on the specific designation of isolation facilities as part of a contingency plan in case monkeypox is detected in people entering the country’s borders.

What is monkeypox?

A zoonotic disease, or an infectious disease that is transmitted between species from animals to humans and vice versa, monkeypox is a viral disease that was first detected in monkeys.

It occurs primarily in tropical rainforest areas of central and west Africa and is occasionally exported to other regions.

“The symptoms of monkeypox are similar to those in the past in smallpox patients, although it is clinically less severe,” according to the WHO.

Monkeypox is transmitted to humans through close contact with an infected person or animal, or with material contaminated with the virus, the WHO added.

It can also be transmitted from one person to another by close contact with lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets and contaminated materials, such as beddings, towels, clothing or other objects.

Symptoms

According to the WHO, symptoms of the disease include rash with blisters on the face, hands, feet, body, eyes, mouth or genitals.

Those infected will also have fever, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, muscle and back aches, and suffer from low energy.

But the WHO also said most people recover fully without treatment. However, in some cases, people can get seriously ill.

Vulnerability to zoonotic diseases

The Philippines is known to be highly vulnerable to zoonosis because of the illegal wildlife trade.  Hunting wild animals for food remains a practice in rural areas, particularly in the upland.

Monkeys are also being traded illegally in the Philippines. The country is both a source and end-consumer of native and exotic animals for various purposes, including the belief in the animals’ medicinal effects to boost health or to promote longevity.

The illicit pet trade in the Philippines likewise remains rampant. Monkeys and other native or even exotic or non-native wild animals are the targets.

Worse, with the advent of high-tech gadgetry and Internet technology, illegal wildlife trade is done online via a click of a mouse on the computer or keypad of a smartphone.

Monkey farms

The Philippines is known to host privately owned and managed monkey farms to breed native long-tailed macaque.  At least two monkey farms legally operate in the country and abide by international treaties of which the Philippines is a party.

The farms export the monkeys for scientific research but which animal rights activists strongly condemn as unethical treatment of animals.

Besides claims that it would allegedly add to the factors that contribute to species extinction in the wild, the operation of these wildlife farms is deemed a potential source of zoonotic diseases

Sought for comment about the safety of monkey farm operations in the country, an official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) told the BusinessMirror in an interview that, first and foremost, monkeypox can be transmitted from other animals other than monkeys to humans.

“It sometimes comes from rodents, rats, mice, squirrels.  It doesn’t always come from monkeys,” Theresa Tenazas, chief of the Wildlife Resource Division of the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said.

According to Tenazas, the DENR-BMB had already issued an advisory about monkeypox to the various DENR satellite offices to help detect and prevent the spread of monkeypox.

Safety measures

“Even employees are fully equipped with safety gears.  I know because I’ve been to a monkey farm.  You can’t enter a monkey farm without gloves, a laboratory gown and even face mask,” Tenazas told the BusinessMirror via telephone on June 8.

She added that the concerned DENR-BMB and DENR regional or provincial offices strictly monitor the operation of monkey farms to ensure compliance with the law and prevent the threat or potential threat of zoonosis.

“Wildlife permittees and wildlife farm permittees are required to report quarterly to concerned DENR offices which are submitted to us [DENR-BMB office].  And we validate the reports,” said Tenazas.

The official maintained that the DENR is strict when it comes to allowing the importation of wild animals, the same way it is strict in allowing the export of wildlife animals and parts of their derivatives that are allowed under international treaties, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Serious threat

Jason Baker, senior vice president of Campaigns at the People’s Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), however, said monkeypox has happened with three-quarters of infectious diseases that have recently emerged in humans.

“Monkeypox virus—which also affects animals like squirrels, rats, and mice—can be contracted directly from infected animals, but can also be caught by eating or preparing the flesh of sick animals,” Baker said when the BusinessMirror asked him for a comment via email on June 8.

He adding that monkeypox, like severe acute respiratory syndrome, swine flu and Covid-19, jumped to humans from other species,

According to Baker, anywhere groups of animals are closely confined—as they are in primate laboratories, at animal markets, and on factory farms—monkeypox or other diseases can spread to humans.

As such, he said primate breeding and experimentation in the Philippines continue to pose infectious disease threats.

“Crowded conditions at labs and breeding facilities, as opposed to how monkeys live in the wild, enables disease transmission to occur much quicker,” he said.

Prevention better than cure

“It’s time we accepted that snatching animals from their natural homes, confining them to filthy cages in close proximity to each other, and killing and eating them will lead to more zoonotic diseases like monkeypox and Covid-19,” he said. “These diseases will also have unpredictable mutations and potentially deadly outcomes.”

He added: “Scientists were able to develop a vaccine to help protect against Covid-19, but next time they may not be able to.”

Baker said to prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases, the best thing we can do is go vegan, or eat vegetables.

The government can take action to prevent the spread of monkeypox by cracking down on the keeping of exotic pets, banning experimentation on primates and encouraging the public to make kinder plant-based food choices.

Sought to weigh in on the issue, Asean Centre for Biodiversity Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim said that while monkeypox is not as fatal and as transmissible as Covid, it can still be debilitating and could become fatal without proper and timely medical intervention.

“Appropriate quarantine measures should still be in place to keep out monkeypox from being introduced into the country, coming from both humans and animals known to be able to transmit the disease to humans, such as monkeys and rodents,” she told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on June 15.

Lim added: “We also should have in mind that there may be other pox viruses that can still come from nature so we need to keep those contained by keeping our wild species safe in their natural habitats.”



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