The declaration of a global health emergency means that the health crisis is an “extraordinary” event requiring a globally managed response and that the disease is at high risk of spreading across borders. The WHO has previously made similar statements about diseases such as COVID-19, Ebola in the Congo and West Africa, Zika in Brazil, and ongoing polio eradication efforts.
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 effect, given that the WHO is largely powerless in trying to persuade countries to act.
The WHO said this week that it had confirmed more than 3,200 cases of monkeypox infection in about 40 countries that had not previously reported the disease. The vast majority of cases are among men who are gay, bisexual or have sex with other men, and more than 80% of cases are in Europe.
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A top WHO adviser said last month that the spike in cases in Europe was likely linked to male sexual activity at two raves in Spain and Belgium, suggesting his entry into the gay and bisexual community was “an accident.” British officials said the majority of cases in the UK involved men who reported having sex with other men in places like saunas and sex clubs.
Scientists warn that anyone in close physical contact with a person infected with monkeypox, their clothes or sheets, is at risk of contracting the disease, regardless of their sexual orientation.
People with monkeypox often experience symptoms such as fever, body aches, and a rash; most recover within a few weeks without needing medical attention.
Monkeypox in Africa mainly affects people who come into contact with infected wild animals such as rodents or primates. Approximately 1,500 cases of monkeypox have been reported in Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, including 70 deaths.
To date, scientists have not found any mutations in the monkeypox virus that would suggest it is more transmissible or lethal, although the number of changes found suggests that the virus has likely been spreading undetected for years.
The version of the disease transmitted outside of Africa usually has a mortality rate of less than 1%, while the version seen in Africa can kill up to 10% of affected people.
The WHO is also setting up a monkeypox vaccine exchange mechanism that can make it possible for vaccines to reach wealthy countries such as the UK, which currently has the largest outbreak outside of Africa.
Some experts warn that this could exacerbate the deep inequalities seen between rich and poor countries during the coronavirus pandemic.
“France, Germany, the US and the UK already have a lot of resources and a lot of vaccines to deal with this and they don’t need vaccines from the WHO,” said Dr Irwin Redlener, disaster preparedness and response expert at Columbia university. .
“What we should be doing is trying to help countries in Africa where monkeypox was endemic and largely forgotten,” he said. “Monkeypox is not COVID, but our focus should not be so skewed that it only becomes a problem when it is noticed in rich countries.”