The World Health Organization on Saturday said the rapid spread of monkeypox in dozens of countries does not currently constitute a global health emergency.
However, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called monkeypox an emerging health threat and urged governments around the world to step up surveillance, contact tracing, testing and ensure that people in high-risk groups have access to vaccines and antivirals.
The WHO has convened its emergency committee to determine what level of threat monkeypox currently poses to the international community. At least 3,000 cases of monkeypox have been detected in more than 50 countries since early May, according to the WHO.
The committee weighed whether to activate WHO’s highest alert level in response to the outbreak, labeled a public health emergency of international concern. Covid-19 and polio are the only other viral outbreaks that the WHO considers an international public health emergency.
While the WHO has not activated the highest alert level, Tedros said the outbreak is of great concern because it is spreading rapidly in countries where the virus is not normally found. Historically, monkeypox has spread in small numbers in remote areas of West and Central Africa. In the current outbreak, 84% of cases reported worldwide are in Europe, which is very unusual.
“What makes the current outbreak particularly worrisome is the rapid, ongoing spread to new countries and regions and the risk of further, sustained transmission among vulnerable populations, including immunocompromised people, pregnant women and children,” Tedros said in a press release in Saturday.
The director of the WHO said that studies on the spread of monkeypox in Africa are being neglected, endangering the health of people there and around the world.
Monkeypox is primarily spread through close physical contact with an infected person or through contaminated materials such as shared clothing or sheets. The virus can be spread through the air if an infected person has lesions in their throat or mouth. However, this requires constant face-to-face contact, and monkeypox is not thought to be spread through aerosol particles.
Respiratory droplets quickly fall to the ground, while aerosol particles remain in the air for a longer period of time. Covid-19 is spread through aerosol particles, which is one of the reasons why it is contagious.
Monkeypox belongs to the same family of viruses as smallpox, but has milder symptoms. Most people recover in two to four weeks without special treatment.
According to the WHO, the monkey outbreak primarily affects gay and bisexual men who have said they have had sex with new or multiple partners. Of the 468 monkeypox patients who provided demographic information, 99% were men. According to the WHO, most of them identified as men who have sex with men, and their average age was 37 years.
The U.S. has reported 142 confirmed or suspected cases of Monkexpox infection in 23 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public health officials in the US have sought to raise awareness ahead of Pride month about how the virus spreads and what symptoms look like so people can protect themselves from infection. Although men who have sex with men are now at higher risk, anyone can contract monkeypox through close physical contact, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Monkeypox often begins with flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches, chills, exhaustion, and swollen lymph nodes. Then a rash appears on the body that looks like pimples or blisters. People are most contagious when they have a rash.
However, some patients during the current outbreak only developed a rash on their genitals or anus before they developed any flu-like symptoms, indicating it is spread sexually in these cases, according to the CDC. In other cases, patients developed a rash without any flu-like symptoms at all.
The US has stockpiled two different vaccines and an antiviral to fight smallpox and monkeypox. Jynneos is a two-dose vaccine approved for people 18 years of age and older. The CDC generally recommends Jynneos over one other option, ACAM2000, the older generation smallpox vaccine. Jynneos is considered safer than ACAM2000, which can have serious side effects.
The WHO has stated that mass vaccination is not currently recommended to stop monkeypox. The US is offering vaccines to people at high risk of contracting the virus.
The International Health Agency has applied emergency status only six times since the rules were put in place in the mid-2000s. The last time the WHO declared a pre-Covid global health emergency was in 2019 due to the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo that killed more than 2,000 people. The agency also declared global emergencies for the 2016 Zika virus, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu, and the 2014 polio and Ebola outbreaks.