Monkeypox declared global health emergency by WHO as cases surge

Declaration is strongest call to action agency can make, with most recent such announcement being for Covid

The global monkeypox outbreak has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) – the strongest call to action the agency can make.

It is the seventh time such a declaration has been made since 2009, the most recent being for Covid-19, which was given the same label by the WHO in 2020, and follows a meeting of a committee of experts on Thursday.

A public health emergency of international concern – or PHEIC – is defined by the WHO’s international health regulations as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response”.

The UN health agency said the term implies the situation is serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected, that it carries implications for public health beyond national borders, and that it may require immediate international attention.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, said at a press conference that the committee met on Thursday to review the latest data, but that they were unable to reach a consensus. However, he has since decided to break the deadlock by declaring a PHEIC.

“In short, we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly through new modes of transmission about which we understand too little and which meets the criteria in the international health regulations,” he said. “For all of these reasons I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a global health emergency of international concern.”

While he said the risk of monkeypox was “moderate” globally, it was “high” in Europe and there was “a clear risk of further international spread”.

Globally, there have so far been 16,016 monkeypox cases – 4,132 of which were in the past week, according to WHO data. It is now in 75 countries and territories and there have been five deaths.

The European region has the highest number of total cases, at 11,865, and the highest increase in the last seven days, with 2,705.

Dr Rosamund Lewis, the technical lead for monkeypox at the WHO health emergencies programme, said: “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

She said action must be taken to establish what causes risk and to reduce situations that could put people at risk so they can protect themselves. “This is how we will get to the end of this outbreak,” she said.

Monkeypox is a viral infection typically found in animals in central and western Africa, although it can cause outbreaks in humans. Cases are occasionally identified in countries where the virus is not endemic, but the latest outbreak has been unprecedented.

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While countries in Europe have been hardest hit, cases have also been reported in the US, Canada, Australia, Nigeria, Israel, Brazil and Mexico among others.

The WHO said the outbreak was largely among men who have sex with men who had reported having sex recently with new or multiple partners. However, experts have stressed that anyone can get monkeypox as it is spread by close or intimate contact, with the UN having warned that some media portrayals of Africans and LGBTQ+ people “reinforce homophobic and racist stereotypes and exacerbate stigma”.

Dr Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO emergencies programme, said: “We all know how difficult it has been historically to deal with issues like this because of stigma.”

“If nothing else this is about enlightened self-interest,” he added, as well as “solidarity” with those affected.


Nicola Davis and Miranda Bryant

The GuardianTramp

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