Ireland can vaccinate just 10% of those at high risk of contracting monkeypox when a vaccination rollout begins in the coming weeks, the HSE has said.
The vaccine will be prioritised for gay and bisexual men who have sex with men and transgender people, who are currently most at risk of catching the virus.
The news comes as more than 35,000 cases of monkeypox were confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO) across 92 countries, marking a 20% increase each week over the past two weeks. A total 12 deaths have also been confirmed by the WHO.
The HSE said about 6,000 people in Ireland may be at a heightened risk of infection, however, supplies are limited to about 600 doses during the first phase of the vaccine rollout.
The high-risk group is being prioritised because the nature of the spread of syphilis is similar to that of monkeypox, and syphilis also disproportionately affects this group compared to other sexually transmitted infections.
“Monkeypox does not spread easily between people and can affect anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender,” a statement from the HSE said.
Members of this high-risk group will soon be identified and called forward in the coming weeks for two doses of the vaccine, 28 days apart.
Amid a shortage of vaccines, EU countries are “actively exploring options” to increase supply. The HSE said the second phase of vaccine rollout would likely begin later this year and into 2023.
“The primary focus for all countries must be to ensure they’re ready for monkeypox, and to stop transmission using effective public health tools including enhanced surveillance, careful contact tracing, tailored risk communication and community engagement and risk reduction measures,” said Dr Tendros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO at a press conference on Wednesday.
Dr Rosamund Lewis, the technical lead for monkeypox with the WHO health emergencies programme, said the organisation continues to monitor potential new strains of the virus.
“We have known from the beginning that this vaccine would not be a silver bullet,” she said and confirmed the existing vaccine is “is not 100% effective at the moment based on this emerging evidence”.
She said there have been “sporadic cases” where monkeypox has spread to heterosexual men, women, adolescents engaged in sexual activities and some children, however the vast majority of cases have been detected among men who have sex with men.
A rapid test for monkeypox is yet to be developed, she said, and the WHO is assisting a number of groups in developing one.
“We remain concerned that the inequitable access to vaccines we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic will be repeated and that the poorest will continue to be left behind,” Dr Lewis said.
Following a confirmed case of monkeypox found in a dog in France, WHO officials responded to several questions regarding the transmission of the virus to animals.
Dr Sylvie Briand, WHO director of pandemic and epidemic diseases, said although we now know dogs can be infected by humans, it is not yet certain that dogs can spread to other dogs or back to humans.
Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, said the infection of one animal was not unusual, and it would not be of concern unless the virus spreads among another species, leaving a greater opportunity for monkeypox to evolve.
He said although most of the general population are not at risk of contracting monkeypox, we must be vigilant and take precautions.