The chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.N.’s health agency, announced on Saturday that the monkeypox (MPV) outbreak that has affected over 70 countries can now be considered a global health emergency — the highest level of alert the agency can make.
The outbreak has mostly affected men who have sex with men, according to the WHO. But the WHO has cautioned that anyone is susceptible to the virus since it’s transmitted by close or intimate contact. The agency has also condemned homophobic and racist responses to the outbreak.
Such a move by a WHO chief hasn’t happened before, according to the Associated Press.
“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,” Tedros said. “I know this has not been an easy or straightforward process and that there are divergent views among the [committee] members.”
The designation of the MPV outbreak as a global emergency means that it has the potential to spread to other countries and requires a global response. There’s been almost 17,000 confirmed cases of MPV around the globe in 74 countries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
“Although I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern for the moment, this is an outbreak that is concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners,” Tedros said. “That means that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups.”
In explaining Tedros’s decision to make the announcement, WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan told the AP, “[Tedros] found that the committee did not reach a consensus, despite having a very open, very useful, very considered debate on the issues, and that since he’s not going against the committee, what he’s recognizing is that there are deep complexities in this issue.”
The WHO’s announcement may have little effect on the U.S. response, the Washington Post reports. However, the paper notes it could put pressure on the government to declare the outbreak a public health emergency. Doing so would increase funding and push states to report more data on MPV to the CDC.
In a statement, the Human Rights Campaign applauded WHO's decision.
“This designation must serve as an alarm to public health officials and governments around the world that combatting monkeypox is a top priority; it is critical to rapidly increase testing capacity and vaccine distribution in order to reach communities most impacted by the virus, particularly gay and bisexual men and transgender women, who comprise the majority of current cases,” said Jay Brown, Human Rights Campaign Senior Vice President of Programs, Research and Training. “A public health response that does not center equitable care and treatment is a failed response. We are especially concerned that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people who face greater challenges in accessing healthcare will bear the brunt of MPV. The LGBTQ+ community will continue to do what we have done for decades — care for one another, be compassionate and empathetic, and advocate for our community’s well-being.”
MPV can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, lesions on the skin, or on the mouth or throat, respiratory droplets, and contaminated objects, according to WHO.
It causes flu-like symptoms and rashes that spread across the body. Few deaths have been reported. Vaccines and other medicines to treat smallpox — which is deadlier than MPV — can be used to prevent and treat MPV as the two viruses belong to the same family of viruses.
The U.S. has almost 2,900 confirmed cases, according to the CDC.