The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed the sexual transmission of mpox, commonly known as monkeypox, in Congo for the first time. This alarming development comes as Congo faces its largest-ever outbreak of the disease, which could pose significant challenges to containment efforts.
According to WHO, a resident of Belgium traveled to Congo in March and subsequently tested positive for mpox. The individual identified as a man engaged in sexual relations with other men and visited underground clubs for gay and bisexual men during his stay. Among his sexual contacts, five individuals later tested positive for mpox.
Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist, emphasized the significance of this discovery, stating, “This is the first definitive proof of sexual transmission of monkeypox in Africa.” He dispelled the misconception that such transmission could not occur in the region.
Mpox has been endemic in parts of central and west Africa for decades, typically jumping to humans from infected rodents and causing limited outbreaks. However, last year, epidemics predominantly linked to sexual activity among gay and bisexual men in Europe spread to over 100 countries, prompting WHO to declare it a global emergency. This worldwide outbreak has resulted in approximately 91,000 cases to date.
WHO noted the presence of numerous discrete clubs in Congo where men engage in sexual activities with other men, including members who travel to other regions of Africa and Europe. This unique outbreak highlights the risk of mpox spreading widely within sexual networks.
In addition to sexual transmission, the mpox outbreak in Congo this year has seen the virus reach Kinshasa, the capital, and the conflict-affected province of South Kivu. The toll has surpassed 12,500 infections and approximately 580 deaths, making it the country’s largest-ever mpox outbreak, doubling the numbers from 2020.
Virologist Tomori expressed concerns that similar transmission might be occurring in other parts of Africa, but it remains hidden due to draconian anti-LGBTQ+ laws in several countries. Driving at-risk populations underground could hinder disease control efforts.
Mpox presents symptoms such as fever, chills, rash, and lesions on the face or genitals. Most individuals recover without hospitalization within several weeks.
WHO warns of a significant risk of mpox spreading to other African countries and globally, potentially with more severe consequences than the previous worldwide epidemic. Tomori emphasized the need to take monkeypox more seriously, especially in Africa, and called for mass immunization campaigns among affected populations.
Despite thousands of cases in Congo, no vaccines have arrived, and limited shots or treatments have been made available for Africa, leaving the region vulnerable to the disease’s spread.