WHO has declared an international health emergency over an outbreak of monkeypox that has affected nearly 17,000 people in 74 countries.
The head of the World Health Organization called the surge in monkeypox infections “extraordinary” even though the highest alert level was declared on Saturday.
“We have an outbreak that has spread rapidly around the world thanks to new transmission routes that we know too little about and that meet the criteria for international health regulations,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference.
Declaring a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, he said the risk of monkeypox is relatively high worldwide, including in Europe and North America, where it does not normally occur.
This is the first time the head of a UN health agency has taken such action.
An international emergency is the WHO’s highest alert level, but this designation does not mean that the disease is particularly deadly or contagious.
WHO emergency chief Dr Michael Ryan said the organization is putting monkeypox in this category to ensure the global community takes the current outbreak seriously.
“This is a call to action,” Dr. Ryan said, hoping the move will lead to collective action against the disease.
Dr. Ghebreyesus made this statement without the consent of experts from the WHO emergency committee, who continue to disagree on whether the highest level of alert should be called.
Discovered in early May, an unusual spike in monkeypox cases outside Central and West Africa, where the virus is endemic, has since spread around the world, with Europe as its epicenter.
More than 16,836 people in 74 countries have now been affected by the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The declaration of a global emergency means that the monkeypox outbreak is an “extraordinary event” that can spread to more countries and requires a coordinated global response.
This is only the seventh time that WHO has used this level of readiness.
The UN agency has previously declared emergencies in response to public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak, the 2016 Zika virus in Latin America, and ongoing efforts to eradicate polio.
It declares a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” only in “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected” situations.
Diseases in this category are defined by the UN body as an “extraordinary event”, the spread of which poses a “risk to public health in other states” and may require “coordinated international action”.
The declaration of an emergency basically serves as a call to bring more global resources and attention to the outbreak. Past announcements have had a mixed impact as the WHO is largely powerless to get countries to act.
To date, monkeypox deaths have only been reported in Africa, where a more virulent version of the virus is spreading, mainly in Nigeria and the Congo.
Monkeypox, first identified in humans in 1970, is less dangerous and contagious than the related human smallpox, eradicated in 1980.