Those most at risk of contracting monkeypox will receive the first doses of the vaccine at the start of NSW’s rollout, in what has been described as a ‘watershed moment’.
- The state program will start with 5,500 doses for specific groups
- It will expand when 30,000 more doses arrive at the end of September
- Health authorities believe cases are likely to rise
NSW Health will from today provide 5,500 doses of the JYNNEOS smallpox vaccine to targeted groups deemed most vulnerable if the virus becomes endemic.
More than 30 cases have now been confirmed in NSW, with the majority detected overseas.
In July Australia’s Chief Medical Officer declared the spread of monkeypox a “communicable disease incident of national significance”.
Men who have sex with men are thought to be most at risk of contracting monkeypox, which is spread through skin-to-skin contact.
Gay men, bisexual men, and men who have sex with men who are homeless, sex workers, or have significant drug problems that impair their judgment are among the specific groups to receive the first doses.
Others include those who are HIV-positive, immunocompromised, or undergoing post-exposure prophylaxis for close contacts.
A small number of people who booked travel in the US, UK and North America before October 31 are also eligible.
The rollout will expand once an additional 30,000 doses arrive next month. Authorities have secured an additional 70,000 vaccines for next year.
NSW Health director of health protection Jeremy McAnulty said the virus was spreading rapidly to other countries.
“Most people are not at risk of monkeypox,” he said. “To get infected, you usually need close skin-to-skin contact.
“And those most at risk are men who have sex with men.
“We are particularly concerned that men who have sex with men are protected.”
Dr McAnulty said the rollout was being staged because of a global rush to get the next-generation vaccine, which is only made by one company.
Health authorities are also urging those at risk to practice safer sex and limit their sexual partners.
Monkeypox is a disease usually associated with West and Central Africa, but since May there have been outbreaks around the world.
There have been more than 26,000 cases reported internationally, with most identified in the United States and Europe.
In Australia, 58 people have been confirmed infected, including 33 in New South Wales.
Only two of these cases would be transmitted locally, and most were infected abroad.
Symptoms usually develop two weeks after exposure and include headache, fever, chills, sore throat, muscle and body aches, fatigue, rash, and swollen lymph nodes.
The acting chief executive of HIV support and sexually diverse health service ACON, Karen Price, said the number of cases in Australia is “extremely likely to rise”.
Ms Price says getting those most at risk vaccinated is “imperative” to protect the wider community.
“We recognize that not everyone in our communities who wants a vaccine will be able to access it initially,” she said.
“We are engaged in discussions and asking people to continue to be patient as NSW Health and community organizations work through the distribution of vaccines.”
NSW Health is working with GPs and doctors who will identify vulnerable patients and offer them the vaccine.
Rural president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, Michael Clements, said the start of vaccination programs across the country was a “watershed moment”.
“Luckily we haven’t had many cases in Australia and by rolling out this vaccine we can limit community transmission and prevent the virus from taking hold,” he said.
Dr Clements said he didn’t want patients to fear seeking treatment, saying it was crucial ‘not to stigmatize people who get this virus’.
“Remember that anyone can get monkeypox and it’s not a sexually transmitted disease,” he said.
“It’s just a virus, and we need to deal with monkeypox without stigma or unnecessary comment.”