WHO Declares Monkeypox a Global Emergency
GENEVA, Switzerland – The World Health Organization on Saturday declared the growing monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, the highest alert issued by the agency.
In announcing the designation, the United Nations’ health agency is saying it sees the spread of the disease as severe enough to warrant a coordinated multinational response to prevent it from reaching pandemic levels.
“In short, 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,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a written statement.
But even as he announced the decision, Ghebreyesus conceded some on the organization’s emergency committee did not agree that it was warranted.
Saturday’s decision is believed to be the first time a WHO director-general has declared a global emergency without the full support of his agency behind him.
“I know this has not been an easy or straightforward process and that there are divergent views among the members of the committee,” he added.
The last time the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern was, of course, in 2020 after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
While such declarations tend to direct attention to a health issue, it is nonbinding and imposes no restrictions or requirements on the governments of countries that have experienced the outbreaks.
On Friday, the Biden administration announced it is considering declaring a public health emergency in response to the monkeypox outbreak here, but a senior White House health official said no final decision had been made.
During a briefing with reporters on Friday evening, Dr. Ashish Jha, the administration’s COVID response coordinator, said such a declaration is “an ongoing, but a very active conversation at [the Department of Health and Human Services.]”
That’s because it is Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra who has the authority to declare a public health emergency under the Public Health Services Act.
A declaration would help mobilize federal financial assistance to respond to a disease outbreak.
But Jha emphasized that the U.S. response to monkeypox to date is going well and vaccines and testing are actually ahead of schedule.
“These are things that typically take many, many months to build and develop and make available,” he said, “but because of the speed at which this administration has been working, we’ve pulled this together within a matter of weeks.”
He went on to explain that the administration’s “comprehensive strategy for combating the virus is built on the same four major pillars it relied on for COVID; namely, testing, treatments, vaccines, and outreach to communities at greatest risk of contracting the virus.”
“The bottom line here is that this is not a novel virus,” Jha said. “We’ve known about this virus for four decades. We have built up a lot of capacity and response. And we’re accelerating that to make sure that we are able to put our arms around this virus and really get it fully under control.”
In the United States as of this weekend, more than 2,500 monkeypox cases have been reported across 44 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The largest outbreaks are in New York, the District of Columbia, California, Florida, Illinois and Georgia.
While the administration expressed confidence in its monkeypox response on Friday, some in Congress remain concerned.
In a letter written to Becerra on Tuesday, Senate Health Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she continues to be worried that some patients and health care providers do not have the information and resources they need to test for monkeypox and respond to the outbreak.
By Friday, Jha and other administration officials on the call with reporters were trying to allay those concerns.
The U.S. has shipped more than 300,000 doses of the monkeypox vaccine, called Jynneos, to city and state health departments so far, Jha told reporters.
“As of earlier this week, New York City, which currently has the biggest burden of disease, has enough vaccine to provide a first dose to more than half of its eligible population,” he said. “Washington, D.C., has enough on hand right now, to provide a first dose to over 70% of their eligible population.”
The Food and Drug Administration is also in the process of authorizing an additional 786,000 doses stored at the manufacturer Bavarian Nordic’s facility in Denmark for distribution in the U.S., he said.
Jha said some of those shots have started shipping and will arrive in the U.S. this week and next week.
“And as soon as the FDA authorizes those vaccines, they will be ready to be delivered to city and state health departments,” he said.
The U.S. has also ordered another 5 million doses that will be delivered through the middle of 2023, according to HHS.
Monkeypox is primarily spreading through skin-to-skin contact during sex. Right now, men who have sex with men are at the highest risk of infection, but anyone can catch the virus through close physical contact. People generally recover in two to four weeks, but the virus causes lesions that can be very painful.
To date, no deaths have been reported in the United States.