(London) — The World Health Organization (WHO) said the escalating monkeypox outbreak in more than 50 countries should be closely monitored but does not warrant being declared a global health emergency.
In a statement Saturday, a WHO emergency committee said many aspects of the outbreak were “unusual” and acknowledged that monkeypox—which is endemic in some African countries—has been neglected for years.
“While a few members expressed differing views, the committee resolved by consensus to advise the WHO director-general that at this stage the outbreak should be determined to not constitute” a global health emergency, WHO said in a statement.
WHO nevertheless pointed to the “emergency nature” of the outbreak and said controlling its spread requires an “intense” response.
The committee said the outbreak should be “closely monitored and reviewed after a few weeks.” But it would recommend a re-assessment before then if certain new developments emerge — such as cases among sex workers; spread to other countries or within countries that have already had cases; increased severity of cases; or an increasing rate of spread.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus convened the emergency committee on Thursday after expressing concern about the epidemic of monkeypox in countries that haven’t previously reported the disease.
“What makes the current outbreak especially concerning is the rapid, continuing spread into new countries and regions and the risk of further, sustained transmission into vulnerable populations including people that are immunocompromised, pregnant women and children,” the WHO chief said.
While Monkeypox has infected people throughout central and West Africa for decades, until now, there was no evidence that the disease could cause widespread outbreaks in other countries or involve people without travel connections to Africa.
Declaring a global health emergency means that a health crisis is an “extraordinary” event requiring a globally-managed response and that a disease is at high risk of spilling across borders. Similar declarations were made by WHO for COVID-19, Ebola West Africa (Congo and West Africa), Zika in Brazil, as well as the ongoing fight to eliminate polio.
The global appeal for more resources and attention is the main purpose of an emergency declaration. Previous announcements had limited impact due to WHO’s inability to persuade countries to take action.
WHO said this week it has confirmed more than 3,200 monkeypox infections in about 40 countries that haven’t previously reported the disease. Most cases involve men who have had sex or are bisexuals, and the majority are found in Europe.
A leading WHO adviser said last month the spike in cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity by men at two raves in Spain and Belgium, speculating that its appearance in the gay and bisexual community was a “random event.” British officials have said most cases in the U.K. involve men who reported having sex with other men in venues such as saunas and sex clubs.
Scientists warn anyone who comes into contact with someone with monkeypox, or with their clothes or sheets, is at risk.
Many people with monkeypox experience symptoms such as fever, body aches, and a red rash. However most of them recover quickly without the need for medical attention.
In Africa, monkeypox mostly strikes people who are in close contact with infected wild animals such as rodents and primates. There have been approximately 1,500 cases, with 70 deaths in Congo, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic.
To date, scientists haven’t found any mutations in the monkeypox virus that suggest it’s more transmissible or lethal, although the number of changes detected show the virus has likely been spreading undetected for years.
The fatality rate for the Africa-specific version of this disease, which is transmitted beyond Africa, can be less than 1%. However, it can still kill as many people in Africa.
WHO also has a mechanism to share vaccines for monkeypox. It could mean vaccines are sent to countries richer than Britain. Britain is currently the most affected country in Africa.
Experts warn that this could increase the inequality between poor and rich countries in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
“France, Germany, the U.S. and U.K. already have a lot of resources and plenty of vaccines to deal with this and they don’t need vaccines from WHO,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, an expert in disaster preparedness and response at Columbia University.
“What we should be doing is trying to help the countries in Africa where monkeypox has been endemic and largely neglected,” he said. “Monkeypox is not COVID, but our attention should not be so distorted that it only becomes a problem when it is seen in rich countries.”
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