WHO Declares Monkeypox a Global Health Emergency

Five deaths have been attributed to the disease in the Central African Republic and Nigeria in 2022

Monkeypox blood samples
Monkeypox blood samples Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

As monkeypox continues to spread around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the disease a global health emergency. More than 16,000 cases have been reported across 75 countries, reports the New York Times’ Apoorva Mandavilli.

According to ScienceInsider’s Kai Kupferschmidt, this is the seventh time the WHO has declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) since it created the designation in 2005. Previous emergencies have been outbreaks of H1N1 influenza, zika and Ebola (twice), and current emergencies include polio and Covid-19.

The aim of the designation is to prompt countries to invest more in preventing the spread of the disease and to share resources as part of a coordinated international response, per the Times. “Declaring a PHEIC makes governments and the global public sit up and take notice,” Lawrence Gostin, a global health policy expert at the Georgetown University Law Center, told ScienceInsider. “It raises the political stakes for government leaders, and it raises the level of accountability for them to act.”

Monkeypox is endemic in about 12 countries in Africa, including the Central African Republic and Nigeria, where the only five deaths attributed to the outbreak in 2022 have been reported, writes Helen Branswell for STAT News. But in the last couple of months, the disease has spread across the rest of the world, with nearly 3,000 cases reported in the U.S. so far. Britain and Spain have similar numbers of cases to the U.S., the Times reports, and most of the cases detected outside of Africa have been among men who have sex with men.

For the first time, the WHO decided to declare an outbreak a PHEIC even though a special advisory committee did not recommend doing so, per ScienceInsider. The committee first met in June and advised against declaring a PHEIC then.

Boghuma Titanji, a virologist at Emory University in Atlanta who works at a sexual health clinic, wrote to ScienceInsider that the decision “is the right thing to do at this time and was the right thing to do a month ago–many of us were frustrated by the delay.” There are about five times as many cases now as there were when the advisory committee first met, per the Times.

“We’ve now unfortunately really missed the boat on being able to put a lid on the outbreak earlier,” James Lawler, co-director of the University of Nebraska’s Global Center for Health Security, tells the Times.

According to STAT News, part of the reason why some members of the committee didn’t support the declaration of a PHEIC was that they worried it might lead to mistreatment of men who have sex with men. Some within the LGBTQ community feel that the monkeypox outbreak should be receiving more attention, per the Times.

Infections can cause painful lesions and lashes, and the virus mainly spreads through close contact, such as “direct exposure to lesions, to contaminated clothes or linens, or through respiratory droplets,” writes STAT News. Two U.S. children diagnosed with monkeypox were likely infected through household transmission.

According to NBC News, the U.S. has distributed more than 150,000 vaccine doses to states and can now offer 70,000 tests per week. But demand for vaccines outweighs supply in some places. In New York City, appointments for vaccines have quickly filled, per the Times.

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