The World Health Organization is due to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the recent outbreak of monkeypox, a viral infection more common to west and central Africa, after more than 100 cases were confirmed or suspected in Europe.

In what Germany described as the largest-ever outbreak in Europe, cases have now been confirmed in at least six countries - the UK, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy - as well as the United States, Canada and Australia.

First identified in monkeys, the disease typically spreads through close contact and has rarely spread outside Africa, so this series of cases has triggered concern.

However, scientists do not expect the outbreak to evolve into a pandemic like Covid-19, given the virus does not spread as easily as SARS-COV-2.

Monkeypox is usually a mild viral illness, characterised by symptoms of fever as well as a distinctive bumpy rash.

WHO European chief Hans Kluge said he is concerned that the spread of monkeypox could accelerate as people gather for parties and festivals over the summer months.

"As we enter the summer season in the European region, with mass gatherings, festivals and parties, I am concerned that transmission could accelerate, as the cases currently being detected are among those engaging in sexual activity, and the symptoms are unfamiliar to many," WHO regional director for Europe Hans Kluge said in a statement.

"With several confirmed cases in the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal, this is the largest and most widespread outbreak of monkeypox ever seen in Europe," said Germany's armed forces' medical service, which today detected its first case in the country.

Fabian Leendertz, from the Robert Koch Institute, described the outbreak as an epidemic.

"However, it is very unlikely that this epidemic will last long. The cases can be well isolated via contact tracing and there are also drugs and effective vaccines that can be used if necessary," he said.

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A tropical disease expert has said he expects cases of monkeypox will be detected in Ireland.

Dr Graham Fry, the Medical Director of the Tropical Medical Bureau, said it would be more surprising if cases are not confirmed here.

"I'd be very surprised if we don't see cases, but I wouldn't be very concerned. Obviously there is a concern, but I wouldn't be overtly concerned."

However, he also said he does not believe the virus will be similar to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking to RTÉ News, Dr Fry said "fortunately, I think it's going to be a much more simple enough disease."

There is not a specific vaccine for monkeypox, but data shows that vaccines that were used to eradicate smallpox are up to 85% effective against monkeypox, according to the World Health Organization.

British authorities yesterday said they had offered a smallpox vaccine to some healthcare workers and others who may have been exposed to monkeypox.

Health authorities in Spain reported 23 new confirmed cases today, mainly in the Madrid region, where most infections are linked to an outbreak in an adult sauna.

Spain is now assessing different therapeutic options, such as antivirals and vaccines, but so far all cases have mild symptoms and therefore no specific ad hoc treatment has been necessary, Spanish Health minister Carolina Darias told reporters this afternoon.

The WHO committee due to meet is the Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential (STAG-IH), which advises WHO on infection risks that could pose a threat to global health.

Unusual cases

Since 1970, monkeypox cases have been reported in 11 African countries. Nigeria has had a large outbreak since 2017 - so far this year there have been 46 suspected cases, of which 15 have since been confirmed, according to the WHO.

The first European case was confirmed on 7 May in an individual who returned to England from Nigeria.

Since then, more than 100 cases have been confirmed outside Africa, according to a tracker by a University of Oxford academic.

Many of the cases are not linked to travel to the continent. As a result, the cause of this outbreak is unclear, although health authorities have said that there is potentially some degree of community spread.

In Britain, where 20 cases have been now confirmed, the UK Health Security Agency said the recent cases in the country were predominantly among men who self-identified as gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men.

The 14 cases in Portugal that were all detected in sexual health clinics are also in men who self-identify as gay, bisexual or men who have sex with men.

It is too early to say if the illness has morphed into a sexually transmitted disease, said Alessio D'Amato, health commissioner of the Lazio region in Italy. Three cases have been reported so far in the country.

Sexual contact, by definition, is close contact, added Stuart Neil, professor of virology at Kings College London.

"The idea that there's some sort of sexual transmission in this, I think, is a little bit of a stretch," he said.

Scientists are sequencing the virus from different cases to see if they are linked, the WHO has said. The agency is expected to provide an update soon.

HSE 'to actively monitor this evolving international situation'

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre said there are no known cases of monkeypox in Ireland at present.

The HSE has established a multidisciplinary Incident Management Team "to actively monitor this evolving international situation".

In a statement, the HSE said the team will "prepare services in Ireland for the possibility of monkeypox cases arising" in the country.

The HPSC said the vast majority of the suspected and confirmed cases of the virus in the UK, several European countries and the US "do not have a travel link to a country where monkeypox is endemic".

It also noted that "most of the recent cases that have been reported in the UK self-identify as gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men".

As a result, the HSE has advised those who self-identify as gbMSM, especially if they have undertaken international travel in the past month, to be alert to any unusual rashes or vesicular lesions on any part of their body or partner's body.

If there are any changes, the HSE said "they should contact their local STI Clinic or their General Practitioner for advice".

Monkeypox usually clears up after two to four weeks, according to the WHO.

Additional reporting: Fergal O'Brien