Elevated mpox cases spur efforts to avoid summer spread

April 11, 2024

Mpox cases have been elevated since October, with an average of roughly 200 monthly cases detected per month, spurring efforts to avoid a summer surge like what was seen in 2022. 

Recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed a startling difference between the first quarter of 2023 and 2024, with the first three months of this year seeing nearly double the rate of cases seen the same time last year. 

Federal health officials have cautioned against making year-to-year comparisons. When reached for comment on the current situation, a CDC spokesperson told The Hill that while the U.S. is seeing more cases than a year ago, there is still a “low level of risk for most people.”  

According to the CDC, 771 mpox cases were detected between October and December of 2023 while 576 cases were detected between January and March 16.

Health experts monitoring the trend are calling for targeted action. 

“I would encourage them to continue to provide the information so that people have the information to make decisions about their preventative health care, and also to increase their communication efforts,” Brian Hujdich, executive director of the National Coalition for LGBTQ Health, told The Hill. 

The outbreak in 2022 spread mostly among men who have sex with men. Gay and bisexual communities were credited with doing much of the work to tamp down the outbreak by practicing more caution in social and sexual encounters, and getting vaccinated with the smallpox vaccine Jynneos.  

According to Hujdich, the continued presence of mpox in the U.S. reflects the inequitable access that different communities have to immunization. He attributed this to the fact that the mpox vaccine was only available through public health agencies up until recently, meaning factors like distance from a clinic or supply stood in the way. 

Bavarian Nordic, the manufacturer of Jynneos, announced last week that its product would now be commercially available in the U.S., expanding access and allowing patients to get vaccinated where they’re able to or where they’re more comfortable. 

A study released by the CDC last year found that two-thirds of people eligible for mpox vaccination remained unimmunized. 

Jay Varma, chief medical officer at SIGA Technologies and former health adviser to former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), said he wasn’t surprised by the recent rise in cases. He noted that the behavioral changes gay and bisexual men made during the outbreak were hard to sustain and our understanding of how long protection from vaccination lasts hasn’t been fully established. 

“We know that the duration of protection may vary a lot and it may decline and the only way to know that durability of a vaccine’s protection is to wait for time, right? There’s no time machine that tells you ahead of time how long it’s going to last,” said Varma. 

In the U.S., mpox still remains largely contained to the social networks of men who have sex with men, not yet becoming a pathogen of concern for the general public. But Varma warned that this could change, pointing to the mpox outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where heterosexual encounters between men and sex workers are a major vector of transmission. 

Concerns of another major surge in the U.S. are growing as the country gets close to the summer when travel and social gatherings pick up. Hujdich’s organization is currently planning an awareness campaign to launch ahead of the summer, while federal health officials have their own preemptive plan. 

The federal government launched its interagency “Summer of Pride” initiative last year to advance health equity in the LGBTQ community. One of the hallmark achievements of this program that the Department of Health and Human Services cites is the mobilization of education around mpox vaccinations. 

A CDC official confirmed that the initiative will continue on into 2024 with a focus on addressing mpox vaccinations. The initiative will highlight Jynneos’s efficacy as well as immunization disparities observed among Black and Latino men. 

“The ‘Summer of Pride’ Initiative for LGBTQI+ Events started in 2023, and will continue into 2024,” a CDC spokesperson told The Hill. “Planning is in the early stages.”