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We need more knowledge to protect ourselves against monkeypox

July 4, 2024

Smallpox and blisters spread all over the body. These are the symptoms of the monkeypox virus that is now spreading at great speed in Kamituga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Four scientists from Erasmus MC have traveled to Africa to help their colleagues there research the virus.

Due to the unsafe situation in Congo, research analyst Marjan Boter, assistant professor Bas Oude Munnink Corine Geurts van Kesseland scientific researchers Leonard Schuele and Luca Zaeck from the Viroscience department moved to neighboring country Rwanda. There they provided three weeks of training to several researchers from DRC and neighboring countries at the University Hospital Center of Butare (CHUB). The Congolese researchers took virus and patient samples of the virus with them.

The training courses are intended to better investigate and analyze the monkeypox virus, in order to discover how the virus is transmitted and how it spreads. “In the current outbreak in Kamituga we see a new variant that is sexually transmitted,” says Oude Munnink. 'Two years ago, about 99 percent of those infected were men, now half of those infected are women. Moreover, many children are also infected during this outbreak. Probably due to transmission within the family.'

The need to provide the training is therefore great. The monkeypox virus mainly develops in areas with limited resources, such as the Congo Basin. 'This virus is still relatively unknown, so we need more knowledge to protect ourselves against it. Understanding what is happening in Africa is essential to prepare for a possible outbreak in Europe. That is what we are committed to within the Viroscience department.'

More problems

According to scientific researcher Zaeck, this new variant also causes more problems. 'The virus can cause serious illness and spreads mainly among young children. The average age of infected adults has also decreased.'
Researchers from the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi listen to researcher Luca Zaeck explain the theoretical principles of a test that detects antibodies against smallpox viruses. The monkeypox virus spreads in the DRC mainly through sex workers who travel frequently between different areas, which also accelerates the spread to other countries. “It is therefore crucial to understand how exactly it is transmitted, at what speed it happens and how it behaves,” Oude Munnink emphasizes. “This knowledge helps us to take more effective measures against the spread.”

Follow-up training

In January a number of scientists went to Rwanda for the first time and in June for the second time. “The first time we didn't know what to expect,” says research analyst Boter. 'Then we ended up in a laboratory with open windows, where there are often monkeys in the window frames. It is so different there than what we are used to here.'

Scientific researcher Schuele also remembers his surprise well. 'The internet works poorly and you regularly have power cuts here. This made it difficult for us to download the software we use for the analysis. The second time it was different and we had already adapted our way of working more to the circumstances. We also learn a lot from this.'

Bring resources

According to Boter, resources such as disinfectant and running water are a luxury in the lab in Rwanda. The laboratory also has limited equipment. “Good resources are not easy to come by there, so we had them delivered via Denmark,” says Oude Munnink. 'Then they can also do more themselves, such as investigating how infections progress within a household.'

'Bas Oude Munnink and Leonard Schuele explain to the scientists how to process their samples and how to use bioinformatics to analyze the results.Many things often don't work as you expect, so you have to be creative. Flexibility is the key,' Zaeck agrees. 'You can have a plan, but whether you can implement it is another matter. You can do anything, but in a different way. It is truly a challenge.'

Antibodies and sequences

During the training, which lasted a total of three weeks, the African researchers learned how to test for antibodies themselves and how to determine and analyze virus sequences. “It was sometimes difficult because of the language barrier, but in the end we always understood each other,” says Zaeck. “We are happy that we could help them and they are very grateful that we came.”

The four scientists will certainly keep in touch with the colleagues they trained. 'Although I don't always answer my phone anymore, because they sometimes call in the middle of the night. And in Rwanda it is very normal to answer, because they call a lot, but for me it can wait until the next day', Oude Munnink concludes with a laugh.

Source: Amazing Erasmus (Dutch)