WHO declares the spread of monkeypox an international public health emergency

WHO declares the spread of monkeypox an international public health emergency

The World Health Organization has classified the global outbreak of monkeypox as a “public health emergency of international concern”, putting it on par with diseases such as Covid-19, Ebola and poliomyelitis.

This is the highest possible designation under international health regulations, and was the last for Covid-19 more than two years ago. The WHO does not have the power to declare pandemics, although it started using the term Covid in early 2020.

Announcing the decision on Saturday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “We have an epidemic that has spread rapidly around the world, thanks to new modes of transmission that we understand too little about.”

Tedros said a WHO panel was unable to reach a decision but decided to make the statement nonetheless, acting as a tie breaker, given international health regulations.

The overall global risk of monkeypox remained low, with the exception of Europe, where it was “high”, he said.

While the move has little significant practical effect other than sounding the alarm, it paves the way for increased funding and stronger international collaboration on monkeypox research, which some experts say is lacking.

The disease, which is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa and was first identified decades ago, has recently been detected on all inhabited continents.

More than 16,000 confirmed cases of monkeypox have been recorded so far, according to the Geneva-based health body, mostly among men who have sex with men. At least five deaths have been reported in African countries, the WHO said.

Health authorities have warned that there is a risk of the disease spreading to more vulnerable groups if left unchecked.

The WHO technical lead for monkeypox, Rosamund Lewis, stressed that it was still possible to contain it as it appears to be concentrated in one demographic group.

There are also effective countermeasures, including a vaccine, normally used against smallpox, and an antiviral.

Governments have rushed to ensure supplies of both, and in some places – including the UK, New York City and parts of Canada – health authorities have expanded vaccination eligibility to reach more potentially vulnerable people. Some European countries are considering doing the same, officials said.

Preliminary evidence suggests the virus is mutating faster than expected, according to a Nature Medicine study published last month.

People familiar with the WHO discussions said there had been conflicting assessments on whether monkeypox should be classified as a public health emergency of international concern (USPPI) when the group tasked with making the first evaluation met in June.

“There are those who want to avoid drama, those who want to attract attention, those who want to avoid criticism of the WHO for being slow and those who think nothing would change in the response,” one person said.

“African governments are saying, ‘We’ve had monkeypox for decades and you’re only realizing it now, and that’s because the richer countries in the north have cases and you’re making all this noise’.”

Another person familiar with the talks said the hesitation was due to fears the health body could be accused of “exaggerating”.

The WHO said at the time that a consensus had been reached and listed a number of circumstances that would trigger a reconsideration of the decision.

In 2020, the WHO was accused of delaying declaring Covid a PHEIC, with critics saying the process had become deeply politicized.

Josie Golding, head of epidemics and epidemiology at the Wellcome Trust, said the world faced a “twin challenge”. . . an endemic disease in Africa that has been neglected for decades and a new epidemic affecting marginalized communities.

“Governments need to take this more seriously and work together internationally to bring this outbreak under control,” she said.

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