‘Extraordinary’ situation declared in more than 70 countries
The World Health Organization said the spreading monkeypox outbreak in more than 70 countries is an “extraordinary” situation that now qualifies as a global emergency, a statement Saturday that could spur further investment in treating the once rare disease and the exacerbating struggles over scarce vaccines.
Although monkeypox has been identified for decades in parts of central and western Africa, it was not known to lead to major outbreaks outside the continent or to spread widely among humans until May, when authorities discovered dozens of epidemics in Europe, northern Africa. America and elsewhere.
Declaring a global emergency means the monkeypox outbreak is an “extraordinary event” that could spread to more countries and require a coordinated global response. The WHO previously declared emergencies for public health crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Zika virus in Latin America in 2016 and ongoing efforts to eradicate polio.
The emergency declaration mainly serves as a plea to call for more resources and attention worldwide for an outbreak. Previous announcements have had mixed effects, as the UN health organization is largely powerless to push countries into action.
Last month, the WHO’s committee of experts said the global monkeypox outbreak did not yet amount to an international emergency, but the panel met this week to re-evaluate the situation.
More than 16,000 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 74 countries since about May, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To date, monkeypox deaths have only been reported in Africa, where a more dangerous version of the virus is spreading, mainly in Nigeria and Congo.
In Africa, monkeypox mainly spreads to humans from infected wild animals such as rodents, in limited outbreaks that have typically not crossed borders. However, in Europe, North America and elsewhere, monkeypox is spreading among people who have no ties to animals or who have recently traveled to Africa.
WHO’s top monkey pox expert, Dr. Rosamund Lewis, said this week that 99% of all monkey pox cases outside of Africa were in men and 98% were men who have sex with men. Experts suspect that the monkeypox outbreaks in Europe and North America were spread through sex at two raves in Belgium and Spain.
Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, said it was surprising that the WHO had not yet declared monkeypox a global emergency, explaining that the conditions had likely been met weeks ago.
Some experts have questioned whether such a statement would help, arguing that the disease isn’t serious enough to merit attention and that rich countries fighting monkey pox already have the money to do so; most people recover without medical attention, although the lesions can be painful.
“I think it would be better to be proactive and overreact to the problem rather than wait to react when it’s too late,” Head said. in the West and in Africa, where animals are likely the natural reservoir of monkeypox.
In the US, some experts have speculated whether monkey pox is on the brink of becoming an entrenched sexually transmitted disease in the country, such as gonorrhea, herpes and HIV.
“The bottom line is we’ve seen a shift in monkeypox epidemiology where there is now widespread, unexpected transmission,” said Dr. Albert Ko, a professor of public health and epidemiology at Yale University. “There are some genetic mutations in the virus that suggest why that happens, but we need a globally coordinated response to get it under control,” he said.
Ko called for immediate rapid scaling of testing and said that, as in the early days of Covid-19, there were significant gaps in surveillance.
“The cases we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The window is probably closed for us to stop the outbreaks in Europe and the US quickly, but it’s not too late to stop monkeypox from wreaking havoc on poorer countries without the resources to deal with it.”
In the US, some experts have speculated that monkeypox could take root there as the latest sexually transmitted disease, with officials estimating 1.5 million men are at high risk of becoming infected.
dr. Placide Mbala, a virologist who heads the global health division of the Congo’s Institute of National Biomedical Research, said he hoped all global efforts to stop monkeypox would be just. While countries like Britain, Canada, Germany and the US have ordered millions of vaccine doses, none have gone to Africa.
“The solution must be global,” Mbala said, adding that any vaccines sent to Africa would be used to target those at greatest risk, such as hunters in rural areas.
“Vaccination in the West may help stop the outbreak there, but there will still be cases in Africa,” he said. “Unless the problem is solved here, the risk to the rest of the world will remain.”