On Saturday, the World Health Organization called the unprecedented spread of monkeypox around the world a public health emergency. This means that the WHO can take more steps to try to stop the virus from spreading.
In an unusual move, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the announcement even though a group of experts he had brought together to study the issue did not tell him to do so because they could not agree on anything. Just one month ago, the same committee met and decided not to call a PHEIC, or a public health emergency of international concern.
Even though the committee doesn’t vote in a formal way, a poll of its members showed that nine thought a PHEIC shouldn’t be declared and six thought it should be. When the group got together in June, 11 were against and 3 were for.
Tedros said at a news conference to announce the decision, “Nine and six is very, very close.” “Since the committee’s job is to give advice, I had to break the tie.”
“We think this will get everyone to work together. It needs cooperation, but not just cooperation; it also needs unity,” he said.
In a report on the meeting released on Saturday, the WHO said that the emergency committee members who didn’t think a PHEIC should be declared were worried, among other things, that it could lead to unfair treatment and stigmatisation of men who have sex with other men, which is where the vast majority of cases in this outbreak are happening. The world health organisation was very clear that this shouldn’t happen.
Mike Ryan, who runs the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said, “It is very important that the existence of a public health emergency of international concern and the intensification of surveillance and control efforts are not used as a way to use coercive surveillance or to force people to do things that would hurt their dignity and human rights.” “This balance is very important to get right.”
Only about a dozen countries in Central and Western Africa have monkeypox as a native disease. But in May, health officials in London found six cases in people who had never been to a country where the disease is common. Four of the six were in men who have sex with other men.
In the weeks that followed, the number of cases around the world skyrocketed. There are now more than 16,000 cases in more than 75 countries in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, new parts of Africa, South Asia, and Australia. Nearly 2,900 cases have been found in the United States.
Tedros has certain powers thanks to the PHEIC, which is pronounced like “fake.” For example, he can tell countries how they should respond to crises. It could also get people all over the world to work together for a more unified response. As part of this effort, vaccines and treatments, which are in short supply, may need to be shared out more fairly.
The WHO released a long list of recommendations on Saturday. The recommendations are split into four groups: those for countries that haven’t seen a case of monkeypox yet, those for countries where the virus is still being spread from person to person, those for countries where the virus is common in nature, and those for countries that can make vaccines and treatments for monkeypox. For example, countries with no cases were told to improve their surveillance and be ready to handle infections if they happen. Countries that could make drugs and vaccines were told to make more and share what they made.
So far, the outbreak has mostly affected gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with other men. Many cases have happened in men who have recently had more than one sex partner, which the WHO thinks makes it more likely that the outbreak can be stopped.
Tedros said, “This outbreak can be stopped if the right strategies are used by the right groups.”
But health officials have said that the outbreak could spread to people who are more likely to get sick, such as pregnant women, people with weak immune systems, and children. And on Thursday, researchers in the Netherlands said they had found a case in a boy under the age of 10 who had no clear link to any other infected people. In the meantime, two children in the U.S. have been infected. It’s likely that this happened in their own homes.
More generally, some experts are worried that it may be too late to try to stop the spread of the disease and that monkeypox could spread to all countries.
In the US, many of these cases have been found in sexual health clinics. On Saturday, the National Coalition of STD Directors asked the Biden administration to follow the WHO’s lead and declare monkeypox a national public health emergency. The group also asked the government to give an emergency fund of $100 million.
The group’s executive director, David C. Harvey, said in a statement that the steps the government has taken to deal with the monkeypox outbreak, such as speeding up the distribution of vaccines and giving important funding for monkeypox research, are simply not enough.
“Cities and states across the country have been left to handle this outbreak on their own, which means they have to make hard decisions about how and when to give out vaccines, give people the medicine they need to get better, and educate the public.”
Ashish Jha, the White House Covid-19 coordinator, told reporters on Friday that the Department of Health and Human Services is talking about whether or not declaring an emergency would help with the response.
“I think it’s always important to ask very specific questions when there’s a public health emergency,” Jha said. “What would that allow us to do differently than what we’re doing now, and would that make it easier to respond to this outbreak?” “It’s a very active conversation at HHS that’s going on all the time.”
Infections with monkeypox cause painful sores and rashes, like vesicles on the palms. In the past, cases have been marked by large rashes, but most people affected by the current outbreak have only a few genital or anal lesions.
The virus that causes monkeypox is spread through close contact, mostly through direct contact with sores, contaminated clothing or linens, or through breathing droplets. So far, the virus hasn’t killed anyone in the United States or Europe, even though the number of cases has gone up. Five people have died from monkeypox so far in 2022. Two of the places where it is common are the Central African Republic and Nigeria.
The head of epidemics and epidemiology at Britain’s Wellcome Trust, Josie Golding, said that this outbreak should be a wake-up call for world leaders to improve the world’s ability to deal with outbreaks of infectious diseases.
“Since the number of monkeypox cases keeps going up and spreading to more countries, we now have to deal with a double problem: a disease that is common in Africa but has been ignored for decades, and a new outbreak that is affecting people who are already on the outside. Golding said in a statement that governments need to take this more seriously and work together internationally to stop the spread. “We can’t keep waiting for diseases to get worse before doing something about them.”