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WHO warns people not to attack monkeys amid monkeypox outbreak

At least seven monkeys in Brazil have died after being poisoned or harmed. Police say they think people attacked them out of a misplaced fear of monkeypox.

The World Health Organization is urging the public not to attack monkeys amid the monkeypox outbreak, following reports that primates have been poisoned and killed in Brazil.

"What people need to know is that the transmission we are seeing is happening between humans," WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris said Tuesday at a press briefing in Geneva

At least 10 monkeys in Brazil, a combination of marmosets and capuchins, were rescued showing signs of intoxication or having been harmed, the Brazilian news outlet G1 reported Sunday. Seven of them died and the others were being monitored at a zoo in São José do Rio Preto, in the state of São Paolo.

The Environmental Military Police in Brazil believe the poisonings were perpetrated by people, out of a fear of monkeypox, G1 reported. In response, the police have reinforced patrolling in woods. Civil police in Brazil, meanwhile, are investigating whether the cases are criminal. Some of the animals' organs are also being studied to determine their cause of death, according to G1. 

The WHO declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern last month. Nearly 32,000 cases globally have been reported this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The concern should be about where it's transmitting in the human population and what humans can do to protect themselves from getting it and transmitting it," Harris said. "They should certainly not be attacking any animals."

The recent reports of attacks on monkeys are not the only ones in Brazil, according to Dener Giovanini, the coordinator of an organization called Renctas, an acronym for the National Network to Combat Wildlife Trafficking. He told NBC News that monkeys in various parts of Brazil have been poisoned, stoned or shot to death.

"The name chosen for this new disease is very unfortunate. Many people in Brazil believe that monkeys carry the disease and are persecuting these animals," Giovanini said, adding, "We are very concerned because this represents a huge threat to wild animals in Brazil, which are already very endangered."

Monkeypox is not primarily transmitted by monkeys; rather, until the current outbreak, the virus was most commonly found in and spread by rodents.

Harris explained that monkeypox got its name because the virus was first identified in a group of monkeys in a lab in Denmark in 1958.

"That’s the only reason it has had that name," she said.

The WHO has in fact been working with experts and partners to change the name of monkeypox, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in June. That announcement came after an international group of scientists called for the virus to be renamed to avoid discriminatory associations. 

In the current outbreak, cases of monkeypox outside the 11 African countries where the disease is endemic began to be reported in early May.

The virus appears to be spreading primarily through sexual activity among men who have sex with men.

Infections have emerged in 82 countries, including Brazil, that have not historically reported monkeypox and in seven that have, CDC data shows. This year, the CDC says it has recorded over 2,300 cases.

In the U.S., monkeypox was declared a public health emergency last week. Nearly 9,500 cases have been confirmed.