Belgium has officially become the first country to introduce mandatory quarantine for monkeypox patients amidst a sudden outbreak of the disease in Europe and North America.
The disease is known to occasionally crop up in parts of Africa, but the World Health Organization is now tracking a sudden outbreak in over a dozen unexpected countries dating back to early May – and that has prompted Belgium to take action.
Health authorities in Belgium recently announced a 21-day quarantine rule for anyone with monkeypox, after confirming three cases of the virus last week.
"For transmission, a person must have had close physical contact with an infected person (including through droplets transmission), or contact with clothing or linens used by an infected person," Belgian authorities said in a news release.
"Monkeypox can, therefore, in particular, be transmitted through sexual contact," officials said, adding that "the risk to the general population is low."
The disease, endemic to West and Central Africa, first started spreading outside of these regions in the U.K., and has now reached multiple countries, including Canada, the U.S., Spain, Portugal, Germany and Australia.
According to the World Health Organization, it’s "less contagious than smallpox and causes less severe illness," so people shouldn’t be too concerned yet.
The disease's symptoms, similar to smallpox but less severe, include fever, muscle ache, rash, swollen lymph nodes, exhaustion and chills. The WHO has said that it spreads through close contact with "respiratory secretions, skin lesions of an infected person or recently contaminated objects."
The WHO recently said that although there are 131 confirmed cases and 103 suspected cases outside of Africa, the disease is still "containable," reported Reuters.
Some of the cases have been detected among men who have sex with men, although this may simply be due to close contact between certain individuals.
The WHO is encouraging the public not to stigmatize or generalize people over the disease. "Stigmatizing groups of people because of a disease is never acceptable," it said in a news release. "It can be a barrier to ending an outbreak as it may prevent people from seeking care and lead to undetected spread."
Andy Seale, a WHO adviser on HIV, hepatitis and STIs, reinforced that point during a Q&A on Monday.
"While we're seeing some cases among men who have sex with men, this is not a gay disease," he said.
He also clarified that monkeypox can be spread during intimate contact, but that doesn't quite make it a sexually transmitted infection.
"The difference is that sexually transmitted infection is caused by sexual intercourse," Seale said. "You don't need to have sexual contact in order to transmit monkeypox. Close personal contact is sufficient."