Monkeypox could become entrenched in Europe forever if the current outbreak jumps to pets, health officials have warned as cases in Britain have tripled to 57.
All but one of the UK cases are in England, with the UK Health Security Agency announcing on Monday the identification of 36 more infections in England to go with the 20 previously known patients.
One person with monkeypox has also been found in Scotland, but there are no known cases in Wales or Northern Ireland.
Health officials insist the risk to the population remains low but experts believe there is an urgent need to ensure animals do not contract the virus as they could become permanent reservoirs of disease.
No cases have been reported in pets at this point, but in a rapid risk assessment on Monday, the European Center for Disease Control warned that it was important to “manage exposed pets and prevent the disease from being transmitted to wildlife”.
“If human-to-animal transmission occurs, and the virus spreads in an animal population, there is a risk that the disease could become endemic in Europe,” the update said.
“Rodents, and particularly species of the family of Sciuridae (squirrels) are likely to be suitable hosts, more so than humans, and transmission from humans to (pet) animals is theoretically possible,” the report reads.
“Such a spill-over event could potentially lead to the virus establishing in European wildlife and the disease becoming an endemic zoonosis. The probability of this spill-over event is very low.”
Prof David Robertson, of the Glasgow Center for Virus Research, told the Telegraph this was a “valid concern”.
Experts believe rodents, such as rats and squirrels, can harbor the virus but the full range of susceptible animals remains unknown, and could include domesticated pets.
“It would seem sensible to monitor any animals/pets that infected people are in contact with,” Prof Robertson added.
A “notable proportion” of the current cases are in gay and bisexual men and this community is being urged to be vigilant to any new rashes or lesions appearing on their body.
If a person notices an unusual blemish on their body, especially on their genitalia, they are being asked to contact NHS 111 immediately or their local sexual health clinic.
Initial symptoms of monkeypox include fever, headache, muscle aches, backache, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion.
It also produces a distinctive rash, which often starts on the face before spreading across the body, including the genitals.
A person is infectious until after their scabs have dropped off, which can take until several weeks after infection.