WHO Declares Monkeypox a Global Health Emergency

The WHO’s director-general Dr.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

said the emergency committee believes the risk is moderate globally, except in the European region where they assess the risk as high.

Monkeypox—rarely detected outside Africa before now—has in recent weeks spread to thousands of people across dozens of countries, mainly among men who have sex with men. No deaths have been reported among the cases outside of Africa but five people have died in Africa since the start of the year. Epidemiologists say the virus, which requires close contact to spread, is likely exploiting close-knit social and sexual networks among men who have sex with men.

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“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 [for a PHEIC],” said. Dr. Tedros.

The main purpose of declaring a public-health emergency of international concern is to mobilize resources to contain the transmission of monkeypox, according to global health experts. The WHO’s director-general can also make recommendations to the international community, although they aren’t legally binding.

The WHO had previously convened its emergency committee in June but said the outbreak didn’t at that point constitute a global health emergency.

Unusually for an emerging disease, there are already vaccines and treatments that can be used to counter monkeypox. That is because some governments have invested in developing defenses against the accidental or deliberate reintroduction of smallpox, a closely related but much more severe virus. Some countries hold these treatments and vaccines in national stockpiles but they aren’t readily available everywhere.

In some places, including the U.K. and parts of Canada, broad groups of men who have sex with men are being offered vaccination in an effort to slow the spread, although vaccine supplies have so far been constrained. Public health authorities are also working to raise awareness among men who have sex with men to the spread of monkeypox.

The U.S. has so far reported more than 2,800 cases from various parts of the country. A group of about 50 House Democrats this week called on the Biden administration to declare monkeypox a public health emergency. The Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that it was considering whether or not to take this action.

Governments are using a smallpox shot made by Danish vaccine maker

Bavarian Nordic A/S

that was developed as a safer alternative to older smallpox vaccines. That vaccine, known as Jynneos in the U.S., was primarily intended for use as a smallpox defense but the Food and Drug Administration also authorized it for monkeypox when it approved the shot in 2019. Another, older smallpox vaccine, called ACAM2000, is also available in the U.S., but is only rarely used because it has potentially serious side effects.

The sudden global spread of monkeypox follows increasing concerns in parts of Africa about its growing presence there. For decades, the disease was detected mainly in the forests of the Congo Basin in central Africa among people who caught it from wild animals they had hunted, handled or eaten. But five years ago, Nigeria experienced an outbreak in some urban and suburban areas after nearly 40 years without a case. Although Nigerian public health officials contained that flare-up, a few dozen cases have been recorded in the country most years since.

Researchers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has for decades grappled with monkeypox, have also said the virus is now spreading differently there. Monkeypox is now showing up in different parts of the country, not just in the rainforest regions where it was historically seen.

The WHO is also urging researchers to investigate poorly understood aspects of monkeypox such as whether it is possible to have the disease without showing symptoms or whether it can be spread in ways other than close contact.

The symptoms of monkeypox also appear to be more varied than in earlier outbreaks in Africa. Classic monkeypox starts with flulike symptoms including fever and aches, with the later appearance of a rash usually starting on the face. In the current outbreak, doctors have described some cases in which the rash appears before a fever and other cases in which the rash remains concentrated in the genital area, for example.

The WHO had previously applied the designation of a public health emergency of international concern on six occasions: H1N1 swine flu in 2009, polio in 2014, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016, Ebola again in another outbreak in 2019 and Covid-19 in 2020.

Write to Denise Roland at Denise.Roland@wsj.com

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