Close contacts of monkeypox cases ‘left in the dark’ as experts call for greater support

Exclusive: One local council has stepped in to provide sick pay for an infected man, while the close contact of another case criticises officials for lack of support

Samuel Lovett
Senior News Correspondent
Saturday 28 May 2022 14:13 BST
Monkeypox spreads through 'close physical contact', says WHO health official

Close contacts of people infected with monkeypox have criticised health officials for a lack of communication and support while they have to isolate.

Public health experts and scientists have said the government needs to offer financial support to people forced to self-isolate for 21 days, as it emerged that one local council has already stepped in to provide sick pay for an infected man who could not work from home and was told he would not be paid.

With cases of monkeypox on the rise in the UK – 106 were infections detected as of Friday – it’s thought hundreds of people have been told to self-isolate since the beginning of May.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said it was providing daily calls for infected individuals and close contacts to offer support.

However, one man from Leicester, whose housemate contracted monkeypox after visiting Gran Canaria pride festival, described UKHSA’s handling of his case as a “farce”, saying he has waited days for instruction from officials.

He said his housemate developed symptoms after returning to the UK and went to hospital for a test on 24 May but was told it was “probably just an STI” and “unlikely” to be monkeypox, which is cause by a virus. The following evening, the test was confirmed as positive.

“They couldn’t provide any meaningful or helpful information and nothing about housemates or close contacts,” the housemate told The Independent.

“Then today [Thursday] around 2pm they call him again and say actually close contacts need to self-isolate for 21 days and took all our phone numbers, but I and others have still not been contacted. It’s all a farce.”

He said better support was needed for cases and their close contacts who are asked to stay at home for three weeks, as the virus has a long incubation time and it can take several weeks for symptoms to emerge.

Different stages of Monkeypox (PA) (PA Media)

The Independent knows of one case in England where a local council stepped in to provide financial support for the infected individual, who was unable to work from home and was set to miss out on pay for three weeks.

“I do think, for infectious disease prevention, people shouldn’t be out of pocket because of the actions we need them to take,” said one health official with knowledge of the case.

Alice Wiseman, the director of public health for Gateshead, said the question of providing financial support to those affected by the recent monkeypox outbreak “lends itself to a wider discussion about how we manage sick pay and necessary time off work”.

“We have a culture of soldiering on but often, for infectious diseases, this isn’t the right thing as more in the workforce will end up sick,” she said.

Aris Katzourakis, a professor of evolution and genomics, said there was “no point telling people to isolate if they can’t”.

Monkeypox has been spreading in a number of countries (CDC)

He added: “We don’t know enough about how this virus spreads, so giving a small number of people the financial support they need to minimise the risk to all of us is certainly a very small price to pay if one of the less pleasant scenarios ends up playing out.”

Sarah Pitt, a microbiologist at the University of Brighton, said “of course people should have financial support when they have to be ‘off sick’, for whatever reason”.

Will Welfare, incident director at UKHSA, said: “Tracing contacts, and asking them to isolate if required, is helping us to limit the spread of monkeypox in the UK.

“We know that isolating at home can be challenging and we are incredibly grateful to the contacts of confirmed monkeypox cases who have isolated in line with our advice. We stay in daily contact with those isolating to check on their wellbeing.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said, in special circumstances, local authorities may grant discretionary payments to those isolating to mitigate community transmission of a high consequence infectious disease.

People who come into contact with infected individuals are also being offered a vaccine typically used to protect against smallpox, which is caused by a similar virus.

The strategy, known as ring vaccination, includes health care workers, sexual partners and housemates.

Earlier this week, UKHSA announced that it had bought more than 20,000 doses of a smallpox vaccine made by Bavarian Nordic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has meanwhile said countries should take quick steps to contain the spread of monkeypox and share data about their vaccine stockpiles.

“We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily,” Sylvie Briand, WHO director for global infectious hazard preparedness, told the United Nation’s annual assembly.

Monkeypox is a usually mild viral infection that is endemic in parts of west and central Africa.

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