The World Health Organization declared the Monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency, the highest alert that the organization can issue. The classification comes after a rapid upsurge in the reported cases of infection. UN health chief said that the expanding Monkeypox outbreak in more than 70 countries is an “extraordinary situation” that merits the classification.
A global emergency is the strongest call to action that the WHO can make, but the designation does not necessarily mean that the disease is out of control or particularly transmissible. Seven similar declarations have been made since 2009, like the 2014 Ebola pandemic in West Africa, the 2016 Zika virus in Latin America and, quite recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. The declaration came at the end of the second meeting of the WHO’s emergency committee on the virus, which has so far seen over 16,000 reported cases in 75 countries and five deaths.
A public health emergency of international concern – or PHEIC – is defined by the WHO’s international health regulations as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response”.
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the emergency committee had been unable to reach a consensus on whether the outbreak qualifies as a global health emergency or not. However, he said that the outbreak had rapidly spread around the world, and he had decided that it was indeed of international concern. The UN health chief said that little is known about the new modes of transmission that are causing the rapid spread of the virus around the globe.
“The WHO’s assessment is that the risk of monkeypox is moderate globally and in all regions, except in the European region, where we assess the risk as high,” he added. He said there is a clear risk of international spread, and the WHO is issuing recommendations which it hopes will spur the countries into taking effective measures to contain the virus and protect those most at risk.
There are two other such health emergencies at present – the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing efforts to eradicate polio. Even though Monkeypox was established in parts of central and west Africa decades, it was not known to spark large outbreaks beyond the continent or to spread widely among people until May, when authorities detected dozens of epidemics (localized outbreaks of the disease) in Europe, North America and elsewhere.
Public health experts argue that designating the Monkeypox outbreak as a global health emergency is a significant act, one that is bound to marshal further investments from government institutions and private firms in vaccine development to treat the disease. The declaration is a rallying cry for countries to take the virus seriously and raises awareness around the world that can help poor countries cope with the virus.
In principle, the public health apparatus needed to contain the spread of the virus is already in place. Monkeypox does not spread like Covid, and there are already vaccines that offer good protection, like the vaccines developed for smallpox.
What is Monkeypox?
Although it has recently entered the widespread public debate, the Monkeypox virus is not new – it was discovered in the 1950s in central Africa. The initial symptoms of the virus include a high fever, swollen lymph nodes and a blistery, chickenpox-like rash or lesions – often on the mouth or genitals in recent cases. The infections are usually mild and do not cause any hospitalizations. The WHO Monkeypox expert, Dr Rosamund Lewis, said that 99% of the cases beyond Africa have been reported in men. The disease is known to expand rapidly via sexual contact, and most of the infections have been diagnosed in homosexual and bisexual men.