The WHO declares monkeypox an international public health emergency

The World Health Organization on Saturday declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern, a designation reserved for the most serious global disease outbreaks.

This puts monkeypox on the same list as six other outbreaks with the same WHO label since 2007: Covid-19, Zika, H1N1 flu, polio and Ebola, which was twice classified as an emergency.

The WHO’s decision came after an emergency committee was convened on Thursday to assess the spread of monkeypox and determine the seriousness of its threat.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the decision to issue the statement despite the failure of experts on the UN health agency’s Emergency Committee to reach consensus. It was the first time the head of the UN health agency had taken such action.

“We have an outbreak that has spread rapidly around the world through new modes of transmission that we understand too little about, and that meets the criteria of international health regulations,” Tedros said.

“I know that this has not been an easy or straightforward process and that there are different views among the members of the committee,” he added.

The world has seen more than 16,500 cases of monkeypox so far this year in 68 countries where the disease is not endemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The US alone has registered more than 2,500 cases since May, although that’s almost certainly an undercount.

For a disease outbreak to qualify as an international public health emergency, it must be an “extraordinary event” that poses a health risk to more than one country and may require an immediate, coordinated international response, according to the WHO.

The same emergency committee ruled last month that monkeypox did not yet meet those standards, although Tedros said some committee members “expressed differing views.” At that time there had been more than 4,000 cases of monkeypox reported worldwide in 47 countries and territories.

Vaccines could help curb transmission

Monkeypox is spread through close physical contact, including kissing or sexual contact, as well as through respiratory droplets and contaminated items such as clothing or bedding.

Anyone who has had close contact with a monkeypox patient can become infected, but since the outbreak began, cases have largely been concentrated in men who have sex with men.

“Although I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern at the moment, this is an outbreak focused on men who have sex with men, particularly those with multiple sexual partners,” Tedros said. “That means this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups.”

Most people with monkeypox develop a rash that according to WHO. In some, the rash can be difficult to see — just a lesion or two — while others can develop widespread lesions. In this outbreak, the skin rashes have so far often been found in the genital and anal areas, on the face or on the palms of hands and soles of the feet. Some people can also get lesions in the mouth, throat, vagina, and anus.

Symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, muscle aches, back pain, and fatigue sometimes follow a rash.

In Europe and the US, health authorities are relying on increased vaccination and testing to reduce transmission and prevent monkeypox from becoming endemic.

Pictured: A medical laboratory technician places suspected monkeypox samples in an automated nucleic acid extractor before they undergo a PCR test at the La Paz Hospital microbiology laboratory in Madrid, June 6, 2022.
A medical laboratory technician places suspected monkeypox samples in an automated nucleic acid extractor before they are PCR tested at the La Paz Hospital microbiology laboratory in Madrid, June 6, 2022.Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images file

As of last week, the US had 156,000 doses distributed of the Jynneos vaccine to states and increased testing capacity to 70,000 tests per week. Many cities and states are offering vaccine doses to people with known or suspected exposure to the virus, including men who have sex with men and transgender, gender nonconforming, or nonbinary residents with multiple sex partners.

The Health Emergencies Preparedness and Response Department of the European Commission said Monday that it had delivered 25,000 doses of vaccine to six Member States. So is the UK National Health Service offer cans on close contacts of monkeypox patients at high risk of exposure, on a case-by-case basis.

Research suggests that the Jynneos vaccine could prevent monkeypox if given within four days of exposure, meaning it could prevent cases from increasing as more people gain access to vaccines.

“Although we are seeing a declining trend in some countries, others are still seeing an increase, and six countries reported their first cases last week,” Tedros said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Some of these countries have much less access to diagnostics and vaccines, making the outbreak more difficult to track and contain.” The WHO declares monkeypox an international public health emergency

Fry Electronics Team

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