No, we don’t have to worry about the monkeypox virus sweeping our regions. But we must be vigilant: the virus must not enter the world of our rodents.
Most people can no longer hear the word ‘corona’, but the pandemic has reduced it so severely that fear of viruses is deepening. Certainly because it is regularly pointed out that the threat of virus attacks from the animal world is still real, as a result of globalization and our ill-considered handling of our living environment. Moreover, global warming will encourage transmission of viruses to humans.
This fear may explain the great skepticism with which the monkeypox virus is seen modestly rearing its head in Europe and the United States. A few people in our country have also contracted the virus, which is strikingly manifested by the appearance of thick blisters on the skin. In general, this is completely harmless: a person usually heals on their own. The chance of death is small.
However, the sudden emergence of the virus outside its “natural” habitat (West and Central Africa) is causing some concern among virologists. Any virus that behaves differently than expected is closely monitored. Especially since monkeypox virus is related to “our” smallpox virus, which can wreak havoc in humans with a mortality rate of over 30 percent. Thanks to good vaccines and effective vaccination campaigns, it could be eradicated almost half a century ago.
Virologists believe that the virus could replace the smallpox virus that has been eradicated from humans.
As a result, vaccination campaigns have also been halted, causing people’s resistance to smallpox viruses to steadily decline – and the partially fading virus’s resistance to the current virus remains. Some virologists believe that monkeypox virus could replace the eradicated virus. Especially because viruses have the ability to adapt to new hosts. In addition, it can become more virulent and – if necessary – more lethal over time.
“Unlike, for example, coronaviruses, the genetic material of smallpox viruses is not packaged in RNA, but in DNA,” says Laurens Liesenborghs, a physician at the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM). DNA viruses are less able to change than RNA viruses, which makes their adaptation to new hosts less easy. It is rather disturbing that the monkeypox virus was able to pass from one human to another on its own, without involving another animal. This makes you think.
Liesenborghs is an expert on monkeypox viruses. He is investigating an outbreak in the Congo. There, people usually become infected after coming into contact with infected animals, which infect them and prepare them for receptacle. Most of those infected live in remote villages, where they are less likely to pass the infection on to others. But the situation is different for the virus variant in West Africa. This is mainly prevalent in Nigeria, where people travel more, including abroad. It is possible that our recorded monkeypox cases originated from there. Fortunately, this variant is much lighter than the Congolese.
Intense direct skin contact between people will be the way the virus spreads in us. This is new, says Liesenborghs. The incident illustrates the importance of good surveillance and, if possible, rapid treatment of virus outbreaks, even in remote areas. So we must not only help the people of the Congo so that they themselves are less affected by the consequences of such an infection. We must also act there as a vanguard to avoid the systematic invasions of novelties. The war against viruses must be waged on the world stage.
Replacing forests with farms on a large scale increases the chance of viruses passing from other animals to humans.
By the way, the name “monkeypox virus” is not well chosen. The virus was first described in 1958 after monkeys became ill with it in a Danish laboratory. However, it is found mainly in rodents. Monkeys get sick just like us, but differently than we do. In 2020, researchers in Nature Microbiology It is known that the virus was circulating in a group of chimpanzees in a reserve in Côte d’Ivoire. The animals mainly suffered from respiratory problems as a result of the infection. It is not clear whether the infected rodents contracted the virus.
Rodent biologist Herwig Liers (UAntwerp), who has collaborated with Liesenborghs, says a project to monitor viruses in rodents on a large scale. It is possible, of course, that wild-infected animals die so quickly that we don’t see them. But it is clear that the potential reservoir of monkeypox viruses in nature can be large.
Infected prairie dogs
Monkeypox virus has already been found in African squirrels, lilies, rats and shrews. It is described how the importation of infected African rodents for a US pet chain in 2003 contaminated local prairie dogs that were also for sale – prairie dogs are badger-like relatives of our squirrels. At least 47 people contracted the virus through purchased prairie dogs, but all survived.
Some virologists warn that we should completely avoid the monkeypox virus from reaching us in squirrels and other rodents, which could spread rapidly across our continent. We have animal species in Europe that are linked to the species that are the main reservoirs of viruses in Africa. We also don’t know how much pets like hamsters and guinea pigs are affected by the virus. We have to To keep a close eye on such things.
How could such a human-imported virus end up in natural rodent populations? “We don’t know,” Liers admits. We don’t know much about how it spreads from person to person. Can it be transmitted by bed or by faeces? Because in this way it can exceptionally reach other animals. In the Corona story, we saw that infected people can transmit the virus to farmed mink. If the virus can pass from rodents to monkeys and humans, we must assume that the reverse is also possible.
Overall, Leers warns of the dangers of large-scale deforestation and other attacks on our environment, which promotes contact between people and other animals. Replacing forests with farms on a large scale increases the chance of viruses passing from other animals to humans. Certainly if there is no form of immunity to the virus, it can spread rapidly in the human world. It is therefore in our best interest to treat our environment, and especially that of other animals, more carefully than it is currently the case.