WHO will decide whether monkeypox is a global health threat next week

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

Jepayona Delita | Edition of the future | Getty Images

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

The United Nations agency last month declined to declare a global emergency in response to monkeypox. But as infections have risen dramatically in recent weeks, the organization should consider issuing its highest alert when the emergency committee meets again next week.

“The Monkeypox Emergency Committee will meet again next week and will review trends, countermeasure effectiveness and make recommendations” to countries and communities dealing with the outbreak, the chief executive officer said. WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, during a virtual press conference.

The WHO has not specified which day(s) the committee will meet in emergency session.

About 9,200 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 63 countries so far this year, up from just over 6,000 as of July 4, the agency said. Three deaths from the virus have been reported this year.

Most people during this most recent outbreak recover from monkeypox in two to four weeks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the virus causes a painful rash that can spread all over the body. People who have caught the virus have said the rash, which looks like pimples or blisters, can be very painful.

The WHO last issued a global health emergency in January 2020 in response to the Covid-19 outbreak and the following March declared it a pandemic. There is no formal process for the WHO to declare a pandemic under its emergency regulations, meaning the term is loosely defined. In 2020, the agency declared Covid a pandemic in a bid to warn complacent governments of the “alarming levels of spread and severity” of the virus.

Unlike Covid, monkeypox is not a new virus. Scientists first discovered monkeypox in 1958 in captive monkeys used for research and confirmed the first case of a human infected with the virus in 1970 in the nation of Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Monkeypox belongs to the same family of viruses as smallpox, although it causes milder disease. WHO and national health agencies have decades of experience in the fight against smallpox, which was declared eradicated in 1980. Success in controlling smallpox could provide health officials with important knowledge to fight against monkeypox.

The current outbreak of monkeypox is highly unusual as it is spreading widely in North American and European countries where the virus is not usually found. Europe is the global epicenter of the outbreak, reporting more than 80% of confirmed infections worldwide in 2022. The United States has reported more than 760 cases in 37 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.

Historically, monkeypox spread at low levels in remote areas of West and Central Africa where rodents and other animals carried the virus. Transmission between people was relatively rare in the past, with the virus normally jumping from animals to humans. The WHO said the international community had not invested enough resources in the fight against monkeypox in Africa before the current outbreak.

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