EXPLAINED: How Spain wants to contain the monkeypox virus

Spain has the second highest number of monkeypox infections in Europe, but what are Spanish authorities doing to try to stop the outbreak?

EXPLAINED: How Spain wants to contain the monkeypox virus
France has 277 detected cases of Monkeypox virus as of June 21, 2022. Photo: CDC handout

Spain’s Health Ministry on Tuesday confirmed 51 monkeypox cases so far, placing the country ahead of Portugal (37) and just behind the United Kingdom (57) in terms of confirmed infections. 

It also means that Spain is currently the non-endemic country with the second highest number of monkeypox infections in the world. 

Monkeypox is not as contagious as Covid-19 and all cases in Spain so far haven’t been serious, but this virus, a milder version of the eradicated human smallpox, isn’t fully understood yet. It has a fatality ratio of 3 to 6 percent according to the World Health Organisation. 

At least 160 monkeypox cases have been confirmed in May 2022 in non-African countries where the virus isn’t endemic, almost all in Europe: mostly Spain, the UK and Portugal and with single-digit cases in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and Switzerland.

The unprecedented outbreak of this monkeypox virus has put the international community on alert. On Monday, the European Union urged Member States to take steps to ensure positive cases, close contacts and even pets be quarantined, as this is a zoonotic virus (a virus that spreads from animals to humans).

Spain’s monkeypox protocol 

On Saturday, Spain’s Health Ministry published an early detection and prevention health protocol for the monkeypox outbreak, with health officials due to meet again on Tuesday to evaluate further measures. 

People infected with the virus in Spain should self-isolate in “separate rooms” as well as avoid physical contact and sexual relations with others “until the lesions have disappeared”, as monkeypox produces rashes with blisters as in the case of smallpox. 

Spain’s action protocol also requires infected people to wear a face mask and that they have to go out to seek medical attention that they use public transport.

Recent cases of the virus in Europe are thought to have been spread through sexual activity but according to the CDC “human-to-human transmission is thought to occur primarily through large respiratory droplets”, which explains the mask requirement. Transmission via bodily fluids, lesions or through contaminated materials such as bedding is also possible.

Close contacts of positive cases in Spain do not have to quarantine but they should also “constantly” use a face mask in public, Spain’s Health Ministry writes, as well as take extra precautions and reduce social interaction.

People infected with the monkeypox virus should cover and care for their wounds and there should be adequate hand hygiene with soap or hydroalcoholic gel by members of the same household.

The Health Ministry considers close contacts to be people who have had contact with a confirmed case, “less than a metre away” from them in the same room and without a mask, or if they’ve shared clothing, bedding or other objects.

Spanish health authorities also state that infected people should “avoid contact with wild or domestic animals”, in the sense that “pets must be excluded from the patient’s environment”.

Smallpox vaccines 

There is no EU-approved monkeypox vaccine for Spanish health authorities to purchase currently, but according to Spanish national daily El País, Spain’s Health and Defence ministries are to buy 2 million vaccine doses for the traditional smallpox virus at a cost of €7.2 million. 

Vaccines for smallpox have an 85 percent effectiveness rate against monkeypox according to the WHO, as the two viruses are members of the same family.

This vaccine is not intended to be administered to the general population, but rather only to close contacts of confirmed cases if infections continue to rise.

Monkeypox, la viruela del mono in Spanish, is a rare viral infection that’s endemic to West and Central Africa, and unlike human smallpox, it hasn’t been eradicated. 

Its symptoms are similar but somewhat milder than smallpox’s: fever, headache, muscle aches, back pain, chills, exhaustion, although it also causes the lymph nodes to swell up.

Within one to three days, the patient develops a rash with blisters, often beginning on the face then spreading to other parts of the body. 

Monkeypox typically has an incubation period of six to 16 days, but it can be as long as 21 days. Once lesions have scabbed over and fallen off, the person with the virus is no longer infectious.

Although most monkeypox cases aren’t serious, up to one in ten people who contract the disease in Africa die from it, with most deaths occurring in younger age groups.

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Reader question: Are there limits on bringing medicines into Spain?

Vitamins as well as cold and flu medication can be more expensive in Spain, and some brands of medicine that visitors use back home aren't available in Spanish pharmacies. So what are the rules on bringing medicines in from outside the country?

Reader question: Are there limits on bringing medicines into Spain?

Many people have their particular preferred brands of medications they use when they feel unwell or vitamins to keep up their immunity.

Whether you’re just travelling to Spain or you’re living here and want to keep your stocks of pharmaceuticals up, ‘just in case’, you’ll want to know what you’re allowed to bring in. 

What medicines can you bring into Spain from abroad?

Some pharmaceuticals can cost considerably more in Spain than in countries like the US or the UK. While over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are relatively cheap in Spain, bottles of vitamins and cold and flu medications can set you back significantly.

For example, 10 sachets of cold and flu medicine in Spain will cost you around €9.68, while in the UK it costs £3.49 or €4.05.

The main difference is that in Spain you cannot buy medicines or even just painkillers from a supermarket or other shop specialising in health and beauty products. There’s no equivalent of Boots in the UK or Walgreens in the US.

Here, you have to go to a pharmacy or farmàcia, where you’ll have to ask for the medications you want. You won’t simply be able to browse and choose like you can in some other countries. 

If you get a prescription (receta) from a public health doctor here, then you’ll find that the medications are much cheaper than if you simply buy them without, as they’re subsidised by the state. 

Sometimes you may just want to bring medicines from your home country because you know the brand, you know those pills work for you and how they affect you.

So what are the rules on bringing pharmaceuticals into Spain?

The rules on bringing medicines into Spain from abroad are set out in Artículo 74 of the Royal Legislative Decree or BOE. 

The Spanish government states that “Spanish law allows you to carry your own personal medication for treatments of up to three months, as long as it is accompanied by a medical prescription”.

“If you are transporting narcotics and/or psychotropic medication into the country you must get a permit issued by the Spanish health authorities. In this case, you must request e-mail permission from your local Spanish consulate, providing the medical prescription and the following information:

  • Doctor’s information and collegiate number
  • Telephone and e-mail contact
  • Plus all your personal details such as name, address, passport number, date of birth etc.

For example, the UK government website advises those travelling from Britain that “You need a letter to prove your medicine is prescribed to you if it contains a ‘controlled drug’. You may need to show this at the border when you’re entering or leaving the UK and Spain.

Medicines that don’t require a prescription and are not ‘controlled’ can be brought either in your suitcase or hand luggage. Be aware though, some drugs that don’t require a prescription back in your home country may require a prescription in Spain.

It’s best to check beforehand, depending on what you plan to bring in.

Even if the pharmaceuticals you’re bringing in don’t require a prescription, it’s advisable not to bring more than a three month’s supply.

If you’re coming from outside the EU, there may be certain medicines that you won’t be allowed to bring in from the UK. The UK government website states: “You cannot take some products prescribed for health conditions with you into the EU. These include special food required for medical reasons containing meat or dairy”. This could include certain brands of probiotics.