Newfoundland and Labrador has its first probable case of monkeypox, and the provincial government says it will begin offering the vaccine to people who are considered close contacts.
During a news conference Thursday, acting Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Rosann Seviour said the provincial Public Health division has been preparing since the first cases in Canada were announced.
"As with any virus, we recognize it is only a matter if time before it enters our sphere," she said.
Seviour didn't confirm where the probable case originated but noted most viruses enter Newfoundland and Labrador through travel. She said Newfoundland and Labrador is the sixth province in Canada to identify a case of monkeypox, and there are more than 17,000 cases around the world.
She said public health defines a probable case of monkeypox as a person with unexplained acute rash or lesions and has been exposed to the virus.
Seviour said contact tracing is underway, and anyone identified as a close contact of a person who has monkeypox will be offered the Imvamune vaccine, which was originally developed for smallpox. She said the post-exposure vaccine may decrease the severity of the disease or prevent it entirely.
WATCH | Acting Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Rosann Seviour discusses monkeypox in Newfoundland and Labrador
Seviour said the supply of monkeypox vaccine — also used to treat smallpox — isn't large, because it isn't used often.
"Now that supply is being ramped up," she said.
Methods to reduce the spread of monkeypox are similar to those repeated by public health officials during the COVID-19 pandemic: staying home when sick, washing hands frequently, and covering coughs and sneezes. However, Seviour said monkeypox is different, chiefly because once an individual is infected they have long-term immunity — which is not the case with COVID-19 — and it isn't as transmissible.
"We're not dealing with the same situation at all," she said.
Stopping the spread
Seviour said people infected by the virus that causes monkeypox develop symptoms within five to 21 days, and symptoms occur in two stages.
During the first stage, a person may experience a fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, aches and pains and fatigue. During Stage 2, a person typically gets a rash, which often starts on the face, arms or legs, but can also affect other parts of the body. The rash progresses from raised, red bumps to blisters, to pustules, and then scabs over. Seviour said anyone who contracts monkeypox is considered infectious from the onset of symptoms until the scabs fall off.
She said anyone who experiences symptoms of monkeypox should self-isolate and contact their physician or 811.
While hospitalization isn't likely, said Seviour, the lesions can become so painful that an individual who gets monkeypox requires hospitalization. She said the disease is not as severe as COVID-19, and long-term complications are unlikely.
She said the virus spreads through close, physical contact, or through linens or bedsheets that have been in contact with lesions or sores caused by monkeypox. The virus that causes monkeypox can also spread through respiratory droplets, but infection through respiratory droplets is less likely, she said.
The monkeypox virus can enter the body through broken skin, the respiratory tract or the mucous membranes — eyes, nose or mouth.
Seviour said while the virus has disproportionately impacted men who have sex with men, it can infect anyone through close contact. Some other provinces have opened vaccine clinics for groups with higher risk of infection, but Seviour said public health in Newfoundland and Labrador isn't doing that yet.
Seviour said Public Health is concerned about the stigmatization of certain groups who may be at higher risk for monkeypox, like the LGBTQ community.
"A virus doesn't choose; it just takes the opportunities it's given," she said.
She said Canadian public health services have discovered cases of monkeypox quickly because members of the LGBTQ community tend to get tested for sexually transmitted infections frequently.
"That allows us also to work with the community to eradicate the disease and stop transmission," she said.
Seviour said the first case of monkeypox was discovered in 1972, in a child who was in contact with an infected rodent. She said it isn't yet clear if the virus has become more infectious.
Seviour said Public Health hasn't decided if it will hold regular briefings on monkeypox as it did for the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the monkeypox outbreak a global emergency. There are more than 16,000 cases worldwide so far.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said Wednesday that while the global monkeypox outbreak is of "serious concern," public health officials and governments have an opportunity to contain the spread.
Tam said as of Wednesday, there were 745 cases in Canada — 346 cases in Quebec, 326 in Ontario, 58 in British Columbia, 12 in Alberta, two in Saskatchewan and one in the Yukon.
Tam said that learning more about the disease, including how to recognize its symptoms, is critical in the fight against its spread.
"We need to remain vigilant," she said.