The World Health Organization has said the growing epidemic of monkeypox in more than 50 countries should be closely monitored, but does not warrant declaring it a global health emergency.
In a statement on Saturday, a WHO emergency committee said many aspects of the outbreak were “unusual” and acknowledged that monkeypox – which is endemic in some African countries – has been neglected for decades. years.
“While a few members expressed dissenting views, the committee decided by consensus to advise the WHO Director-General that at this stage the outbreak should be determined not to constitute “a global health emergency,” said the WHO said in a statement.
The WHO nevertheless stressed the “emergency nature” of the outbreak and said controlling its spread requires an “intense” response.
The committee said the outbreak should be “closely monitored and reviewed after a few weeks”. But he would recommend a reassessment before that if certain new developments emerge, such as cases among sex workers, spreading to other countries or in countries that have had cases before, increased severity of cases or an increasing rate of spread.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus convened the emergency committee on Thursday after expressing concern about the outbreak of monkeypox in countries that had not yet reported the disease.
“What makes the current outbreak of particular concern is the rapid and continued spread to new countries and regions and the risk of onward and sustained transmission to vulnerable populations, including immunocompromised people, pregnant women and children,” said the WHO chief.
Global case spike
Monkeypox has sickened people for decades in Central and West Africa, but until last month the disease was not known to cause significant outbreaks in multiple countries at the same time and involving people with no travel connection to the country. continent.
Declaring a global health emergency means that a health crisis is an “extraordinary” event requiring a globally managed response and that a disease poses a high risk of spreading across borders. The WHO had previously made similar statements for diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola in Congo and West Africa, Zika in Brazil and the ongoing effort to eradicate poliomyelitis.
The emergency declaration primarily serves as advocacy to bring more global resources and attention to an outbreak. Past announcements have had a mixed impact, given that the WHO is largely powerless when trying to convince countries to act.
The WHO said this week it had confirmed more than 3,200 monkeypox infections in about 40 countries that had not yet reported the disease. Over 80% of cases are in Europe.
Scientists warn that anyone in close physical contact with someone infected with monkeypox or their clothes or bedding is at risk of catching the disease, regardless of sexual orientation.
People with monkeypox often have symptoms like fever, body aches, and a rash; most recover within weeks without needing medical attention.
Monkeypox in Africa mainly affects people who come into contact with infected wild animals, such as rodents or primates. About 1,500 cases of monkeypox have been reported, including 70 deaths, in Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic.
To date, scientists have not found any mutations in the monkeypox virus that suggest it is more transmissible or deadly, although the number of changes detected show that the virus has likely been spreading undetected for decades. years.
The version of the disease that spreads beyond Africa typically has a mortality rate of less than 1%, while the version seen in Africa can kill up to 10% of those affected.
The WHO is also creating a monkeypox vaccine-sharing mechanism, which could see vaccines go to wealthy countries like Britain, which is currently experiencing the biggest outbreak beyond Africa.
Some experts have warned that this could entrench the deep inequalities seen between rich and poor countries during the coronavirus pandemic.
“France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom already have a lot of resources and a lot of vaccines to deal with this and they don’t need WHO vaccines,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, disaster preparedness and response expert at Columbia University. .
“What we should be doing is trying to help countries in Africa where monkeypox is endemic and largely neglected,” he said. “Monkeypox is not COVID, but our attention should not be so distorted that it only becomes a problem when observed in rich countries.”