“In short, we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly through new modes of transmission about which we understand too little,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Saturday.
The emergency declaration came after a second meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, which declined to take the step a month ago. The committee remained divided on whether the outbreak constituted an emergency, Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, but he took the unusual step of declaring an emergency anyway. Some experts and public health advocates criticized the decision not to issue the highest alert earlier, saying a declaration would have improved global coordination to contain the virus.
Monkeypox has spread across the world at an unprecedented rate in the last two months. The zoonotic virus, which causes flu-like symptoms and rashes that spread across the body, has been around for decades and is endemic in parts of Africa. But infections during the latest outbreak have surged in countries that have not historically reported monkeypox.
Infections in the ongoing outbreak are reported overwhelmingly among men who have sex with men, and experts believe close contact during sexual activity is a major driver of transmission. The virus transmits through other forms of skin-to-skin contact and in households through prolonged respiratory spread and the sharing of contaminated items. Authorities have also reported small numbers of women and children infected with monkeypox.
Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the outbreak can be stopped if countries work with communities of men who have sex with men to contain the virus, while stressing the world should avoid stigmatizing the group.
Few fatalities have been reported, although some men have been hospitalized with excruciating pain linked to lesions near the genitals.
Spain leads the world in confirmed cases with more than 3,100 infections, according to tracking by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States has the second-highest tally at nearly 2,900, with Germany and the United Kingdom each reporting more than 2,200 infections.
On Friday, health authorities reported the first two U.S. cases of monkeypox in children.
The pediatric cases, detected this week in an infant and a toddler, are likely the result of household transmission, according to the CDC.
The WHO’s move is not likely to have a direct effect on the U.S. response. But it could put pressure on the Biden administration to declare monkeypox a public health emergency, which could result in increased funding and compel states and local authorities to report more data to the CDC.
U.S. monkeypox missteps mirrors early coronavirus response, experts say
During a Washington Post Live interview Friday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said inconsistent data inhibits the agency’s ability to observe trends in race and ethnicity, sexual behavior and vaccination
“And yet again, like we were for covid, we are again really challenged by the fact that we have the agency have no authority to receive those data,” Walensky said.
Because monkeypox belongs to the same family of viruses as the much deadlier smallpox, vaccines and therapeutics stockpiled in the event of smallpox’s return can be used to prevent and treat monkeypox.
Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.