WHO says it’s not a public health emergency

  • Following a meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee (EC), the World Health Organization announced on June 25 that the multi-country monkeypox outbreak is not a public health emergency of international concern.
  • The WHO’s decision to weigh the severity of the outbreak drew criticism from African scientists who’ve said the virus had been a threat for years.
  • Monkeypox, which is transmitted by men having sex with men, has caused more than 3,500 infections since May, but only 1 death outside of Africa has been reported.

The World Health Organization (WHO) determined that monkeypox is not a global health emergency on June 25.

The first International Health Regulations Emergency Committee (EC) on monkeypox met at WHO headquarters in Geneva on June 23 to weigh the severity of the outbreak. The EC advised the WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that, at present, the monkeypox outbreak is not a public health emergency of international concern.

Still, the WHO states the EC meeting represents “a call for intensified public health actions” in response to the multi-country outbreak.

“We need all countries to remain vigilant and strengthen their capacities to prevent onward transmission of monkeypox,” Dr. Tedros said in his opening remarks at the EC meeting.

“It is likely that many countries will have missed opportunities to identify cases, including cases in the community without any recent travel.”

The monkeypox virus had been a threat in Africa for many years.

According to Reuters, African scientists criticized the WHO as its committee weighed whether to declare the viral zoonosis a public health emergency.

As of June 1, more than 1,400 monkeypox cases were reported by the WHO in Africa alone where at least 72 people have died.

Tea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that monkeypox cases are occurring outside of Africa in countries that don’t normally have monkeypox, including the United States. But most cases occur among men who have sex with men.

Monkeypox cases occurring outside of Africa in countries where the virus is not normally present were first reported in May.

Global health data indicates that monkeypox has infected more than 3,500 individuals in 59 countries where monkeypox is not normally prevalent. So far, the WHO reports that only one individual outside of Africa (excluding Nigeria) has died of the disease.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, MPH, an infectious diseases specialist with the University of California, San Francisco, told Medical News Today that despite the WHO’s emergency committee meeting on the rise in monkeypox cases the general public should not be worried.

“Although this outbreak is concerning and relevant communities need to be aware and protected, monkeypox is likely not spreading very efficiently given the degree of sexual activity worldwide and the relatively low number of cases reported in comparison,” Dr. Gandhi said.

Although monkeypox was not elevated to global health emergency status, Dr. Gandhi said the WHO’s EC meeting raises awareness of monkeypox — both in the non-endemic outbreak and in endemic regions (West and Central Africa) — in order to protect relevant communities.

How is monkeypox transmitted?

Zoonotic diseases are transmitted by animals to humans, but the person-to-person transmission of monkeypox has led to an increase in cases.

Dr. Gandhi explained that monkeypox circulates in animals in countries in West and Central Africa and can cause outbreaks in those regions commonly.

Although monkeypox is mostly transmitted by men who have sex with other men, it may also be transmitted in other ways, such as by touching a surface or object that was touched by an infected individual, according to the CDC.

“Person-to-person transmission is ongoing and is likely underestimated,” Dr. Tedros added in his opening remarks. “In Nigeria, the proportion of women affected is much higher than elsewhere, and it is critical to better understand how the disease is spreading there.”

Is monkeypox treatable?

Monkeypox is similar to smallpox, causing fever, muscle aches, and fatigue and leading to rash or lesions on the skin.

Treatments for monkeypox including vaccines are available for high risk communities.

One such treatment is the effective Jynneos vaccine, which is used to treat smallpox. On June 1, the CDC updated its recommendations to indicate that Jynneos is the preferred post-exposure prophylaxis for close contacts of monkeypox cases.

On June 23, the New York City Health Department began recommending the two-dose Jynneos vaccine to high risk groups to help slow the spread of the virus, which had affected 28 New Yorkers since May.

Just two days prior, the UK Health Security Agency began recommending the smallpox vaccine Imvanex to high risk males to help control the outbreak.

The WHO has declared neither a global pandemic nor a public health emergency.

But the WHO’s emergency committee meeting on monkeypox will shift how public health officials have managed their response to the monkeypox outbreak thus far.

Whether monkeypox is elevated to public health emergency status remains to be seen. To date, the WHO has declared six public health emergencies, including COVID-19.

While monkeypox does not spread as easily as COVID-19, the elevated risk raises concern as the virus continues to spread outside of Africa. Depending on where you live, you may wish to take precautions to protect yourself, though the risk remains low.

“Since monkeypox was ignored in African countries for some time, it’s time to raise awareness about this infection and take it seriously but the general public should not be alarmed,” Dr. Gandhi said. “We should be aware and protect communities with relevant vaccines, [but] it’s still difficult to contract monkeypox.”

To learn more about how monkeypox spreads, visit the WHO’s informational webpage.

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