Vaccines will be offered more widely to people at higher risk of getting monkeypox, in an attempt to help control the unprecedented outbreak in the UK.
Data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) reveals that up to 20 June there were 793 laboratory-confirmed cases in the UK, up from 574 on 16 June – a 38% rise in just four days.
While anyone can catch the virus as it is spread between humans through close contact, the UKHSA states that most cases have occurred in men who are gay, bisexual, or have sex with men.
Now the UKHSA says it is broadening eligibility for vaccination, saying it will begin offering jabs to some gay and bisexual men at higher risk of exposure to monkeypox, even if they are not a confirmed contact of a case.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the UKHSA, said it is hoped the move will help to control the outbreak.
“Our extensive contact tracing work has helped to limit the spread of the monkeypox virus, but we are continuing to see a notable proportion of cases in gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men. By expanding the vaccine offer to those at higher risk, we hope to break chains of transmission and help contain the outbreak,” she said.
The UK has secured thousands of doses of a smallpox vaccine, a jab that also offers protection against monkeypox.
Initially the vaccine was only offered pre-exposure to healthcare workers, and to contacts of cases at high risk of infection – with it ideally given to the latter within four days of exposure, although in some circumstances it can be given up to 14 days after.
However, the Guardian has previously reported that some contacts of cases have experienced difficulties and delays in accessing vaccination.
Experts have also raised concerns, with some saying the outbreak is not under control and vaccines may need to be offered to all men who have sex with men to combat the spread of the virus. Among other factors, some have noted that stigma around monkeypox may be making contact tracing difficult, while the UKHSA has also highlighted challenges including that contact details are not always available for tracing those who may have been exposed.
While details have not yet been released about exactly who is now eligible for the jab, the UKHSA said a number of factors would be involved in the criteria, suggesting vaccination may be advised, for example, for someone who participates in group sex.
“Although most cases are mild, severe illness can occur in some people, so it is important we use the available vaccine to target groups where spread is ongoing. The NHS will soon set out details on how this will be delivered – so do not come forward for the vaccine yet,” said Ramsay.
“In the meantime, everyone should continue to be alert to any new spots, ulcers or blisters on any part of their body, particularly if they’ve had close contact with a new partner,” she said. “If you think you have these symptoms, avoid close contact with others and call NHS 111 or your local sexual health centre, though please phone ahead before attending.”
Robbie de Santos, director of communications and external affairs at Stonewall, welcomed the shift in strategy.
“It is important that gay and bi men get the vaccine when offered to protect themselves and others. Let’s help get the outbreak under control so we can all have a safe and happy Pride season,” he said.
The jabs will also be made more widely available pre-exposure to workers in laboratories where pox viruses are being handled, as well as a broader range of healthcare staff.