South Asian nation aims to do what US, UK, and Europe failed to do during start of COVID-19 pandemic and slow spread of disease while case counts are low
With monkeypox quickly spreading around the world, India may be taking a lesson from western nations’ delayed response to COVID-19—including a sometimes slow availability of clinical lab testing for monkeypox—and preemptively increasing its national surveillance of the deadly social disease.
On Aug. 29, the Hindustan Times reported that in an attempt to slow the spread of monkeypox, India’s central government “has designated 15 viral research and diagnostic laboratories (VRDLs) spread across 13 states to monitor the incidence of monkeypox in the country.”
In the United States, the disease has spread with alarming speed, reaching all 50 states, as well as Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. At 23,893 confirmed cases as of Sept. 14, the US now has the most cases in the world, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Reuters reported on Aug. 4 that the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had declared a public health emergency. It was in May when monkeypox was detected in the United Kingdom (UK). Both the UK and several countries in Europe have struggled to control spread of the disease.
India hopes its decision to designate 15 VRDLs across 13 states to monitor the disease’s spread will enable it to do a better job than other countries at containing or eradicating monkeypox in the nation of 1.4 billion people, the Hindustan Times reported.
“The probability of containment is diminishing daily,” American infectious disease epidemiologist Anne Rimoin, PhD, a monkeypox expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told STAT. “It’s really unfortunate because we do have the tools. This is not an unknown virus … We have vaccines that are already available, even vaccines with indications for monkeypox. Therapeutics. And we know what’s needed to be done.’’ Clinical laboratory testing for monkeypox will certainly increase over the coming months. (Photo copyright: KTLA.)
Keeping Up Their Guard
“Fortunately, India has not seen a surge in cases and the situation here is well under control. However, we cannot drop the guard just as yet. Therefore, a network of VRDLs has been established for surveillance purposes,” a top government expert told the Hindustan Times, seeking anonymity. “It will help pick signs early in case more cases get reported.”
As of Sept. 19, 2022, India reported just 12 cases of monkeypox resulting in one death, while, as noted above, the US had 23,892 confirmed cases and one death, according to CDC statistics. In the UK, confirmed cases totaled 3,552 with no deaths. And, as of that date, the European Union reported 19,379 confirmed cases.
Until recently, monkeypox was endemic only in West and Central Africa. India reported its first case of monkeypox on July 14. So far, most, but not all, of its cases have been related to international travel.
“The isolated cases of monkeypox reported in Delhi with no prior travel history emphasize the importance of tracing the source of the infection, perhaps transmission through rodent population,” Diwakar Kulkarni, PhD, former Director and Principal Scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, National Institute of High Security Animal Diseases, told Think Global Health.
Homosexuality a Vector in India
While India’s scientists are focused on containing the monkeypox outbreak, the country’s government may encounter societal roadblocks because of the disease’s connection with homosexuality. Gay sex is believed to be fueling the spread of the disease, ABC News reported. Until a Supreme Court of India ruling in 2018, gay sex was punishable by up to 10 years in prison in India.
Virologist and noted HIV expert Ishwar Gilada, MD, who opened India’s first AIDS clinic in 1986, told Bloomberg “anti-gay stigma” in India is causing male patients to avoid getting tested and treated for the disease. He said even before the first monkeypox cases were reported in India, two of his patients—a gay man and a man who identified as bisexual—refused to get tested because they feared being the first monkeypox case in the country.
“They are going underground,” Gilada told Bloomberg.
Did the US Wait Too Long to Begin Testing for Monkeypox?
The rapid growth in cases worldwide and the geographic spread of the disease has left global health experts pessimistic monkeypox can be contained.
NPR reported in June that some experts believe public health agencies ran too few tests in the early months of the outbreak because state health officials used a narrow definition of monkeypox when determining who qualified for testing, and that the US had “dropped the ball” on monkeypox testing.
“I think we missed that train at this point,” Gary Kobinger, PhD, told STAT in mid-July when the number of cases outside of Africa had reached roughly 15,000. Kobinger is Director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch and a member of an expert committee that advises the World Health Organization’s Emergencies Program.
And in “New Monkeypox Challenges Abound for Public Health Agencies as Virus Travels Beyond Traditional Hotspots,” Dark Daily reported on how monkeypox has spread beyond its traditional geography and that health officials are worried that diminishing smallpox vaccinations, which offered people some protection against the infectious disease, is contributing to increased spread of monkeypox.
As of Sept. 19, 2022, there were 62,406 confirmed cases worldwide, according to the CDC.
As clinical laboratories attempt to recover from the workload created by the COVID-19 pandemic, monkeypox appears to be the next endemic to test the mettle of lab professionals. Only time will tell if America and other western nations failed to act as expeditiously as India in curbing spread of this latest deadly disease.
–Andrea Downing Peck