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The World Health Organisation (WHO) is looking into reports that state the monkeypox virus has been found in the semen of some patients, reported news agency Reuters, quoting a WHO official, on Wednesday. 

This comes as scientists have reportedly detected the viral DNA in the semen of a handful of monkeypox patients in Italy and Germany, including a lab-tested sample. 

This suggested the virus found in the semen of a single patient was capable of infecting another person and replicating.

However, the WHO has reiterated that the virus is mainly transmitted via close interpersonal contact. Many of the monkeypox cases confirmed in the current outbreak largely centred in Europe are among sexual partners who have had such close contact.

According to Catherine Smallwood, monkeypox incident manager at WHO/Europe, it is not known whether recent reports mean that the monkeypox virus can be sexually transmitted.

"This may have been something that we were unaware of in this disease before," she said. "We really need to focus on the most frequent mode of transmission and we clearly see that to be associated with skin-to-skin contact."

The detection of viral DNA does not necessarily imply that monkeypox is a sexually transmitted disease, such as HIV/AIDS or syphilis, which are understood to be caused by pathogens that pass from one person to the next specifically in semen, vaginal secretions or other bodily fluids.

Viral DNA from a range of different viruses, including the Zika virus, has been found in semen, but it is unclear whether the presence of genetic material increases the risk of sexual transmission.

Europe is the epicentre

More than 1,300 cases of the viral disease have been reported by about 30 countries, mostly in Europe, since early May.

“Europe remains the epicenter of this escalating outbreak, with 25 countries reporting more than 1,500 cases, or 85% of the global total," said WHO's Europe director Dr Hans Kluge on Wednesday. 

The outbreak has triggered concern since the virus is rarely seen outside of Africa, where it is endemic, and the majority of cases are not related to travel to the continent.

Scientists are trying to understand what is driving the current outbreak, its origins and whether anything about the virus has changed.

WHO has described the outbreak as “unusual" and said the virus' continuing spread was worrying enough to convene its expert committee next week to decide if monkeypox should be declared a global emergency.

Vaccine sharing

As the outbreak spreads, the WHO has recommended targeted vaccination of close contacts, including healthcare workers, but has warned it is already seeing a rush to stockpile vaccines.

Due to this, it said it is creating a new vaccine-sharing mechanism. The move could result in the UN health agency distributing scarce vaccine doses to rich countries that can otherwise afford them.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the agency is developing an initiative for “fair access" to vaccines and treatments that it hopes will be ready within weeks.

However, to some health experts, the initiative potentially misses the opportunity to control the monkeypox virus in the African countries where it's infected people for decades.

Some African experts questioned why the UN health agency has never proposed using vaccines in central and West Africa, where the disease is endemic.

“The place to start any vaccination should be Africa and not elsewhere," said Dr Ahmed Ogwell, acting director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said the lack of any vaccines to counter monkeypox on the continent, where more than 1,500 suspected cases and 72 deaths have been reported this year, was a more critical concern than the clusters of mostly mild disease being reported in rich countries.

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