WHO to decide next week whether monkeypox poses a global health threat

A health worker uses a thermal head to detect the monkeypox virus in arriving passengers at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang near Jakarta, Indonesia May 15, 2019.

Jepiona Delita | Future Publishing | Getty Images

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said it would convene a second emergency meeting next week to decide whether monkeypox poses a global health threat as the number of cases rises to 9,200.

UN agency refused last month to declare a global emergency in response to monkeypox. But as infections have risen significantly over the past few weeks, the organization is expected to consider whether to issue the highest level alert when its emergency committee meets again next week.

“The Monkeypox Emergency Committee will meet again next week to review trends, how effective countermeasures are, and make recommendations to countries and communities facing the outbreak,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a virtual press conference.

About 9,200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 63 countries this year, compared with just over 6,000 as of July 4, according to the WHO. There have been three deaths from the virus this year.

Most people in this latest outbreak recover from monkeypox within two to four weeks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the virus causes a painful rash that can spread throughout the body. People who have contracted the virus say that the rash, which looks like pimples or blisters, can be very painful.

The last time WHO released global health emergency in January 2020 in response to the Covid-19 outbreak and next March declared it a pandemic. The WHO does not have a formal process for declaring a pandemic under its state of emergency rules, meaning the term is not clearly defined. In 2020, the agency declared Covid a pandemic to alert complacent governments to the “alarming levels of spread and severity” of the virus.

Unlike Covid, monkeypox is not a new virus. Scientists first detected monkeypox in 1958 in captive monkeys used for research and confirmed the first human case of the virus in 1970 in the country of Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Monkeypox belongs to the same family of viruses as smallpox, although it causes milder disease. WHO and national health agencies have many years of experience in dealing with smallpox, which was declared eradicated in 1980. Successful smallpox control can provide health care workers with important knowledge for monkeypox control.

The current outbreak of monkeypox is very unusual as it is spreading widely in countries in North America and Europe where the virus is not normally found. Europe is the global epicenter of the outbreak, with more than 80% of confirmed cases worldwide in 2022. The US has more than 760 cases in 37 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico.

Historically, monkeypox spread in small numbers in remote areas of West and Central Africa, where the virus was carried by rodents and other animals. In the past, human-to-human transmission was relatively rare, and the virus was usually transmitted from animals to humans. The WHO said the international community had not invested enough resources in fighting monkeypox in Africa prior to the current outbreak.