The decision was announced Saturday morning after WHO convened its second emergency committee on the issue on Thursday.
“I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on Saturday morning.
Tedros said while the committee was unable to reach a consensus, he came to the decision after considering the five elements required on deciding whether an outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.
He added that while he was declaring monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern, “For the moment this is an outbreak that’s concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those who have multiple partners, that means that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right right groups.”
WHO initially stopped short of declaring the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern after its first emergency committee meeting on June 23. At the time, Tedros said the emergency committee advised that at the moment, “the event does not constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern” but acknowledged the “evolving health threat” that WHO would be following extremely closely.
WHO defines a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, as “an extraordinary event” that constitutes a “public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and “to potentially require a coordinated international response.”
The organization’s emergency committee on monkeypox first met in late June, when its members reported serious concerns about the scale and speed of the virus outbreak but said it didn’t constitute a PHEIC. Tedros reconvened the committee in order to provide the latest information, he has said.
The PHEIC designation comes from the International Health Regulations created in 2005, and it represents an international agreement to help the prevent and respond to public health risks that have the potential to spread around the globe.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes the regulations as “a legally binding agreement of 196 countries to build the capability to detect and report potential public health emergencies worldwide. IHR require that all countries have the ability to detect, assess, report, and respond to public health events.”
There are two ongoing public health emergencies: polio, which began in 2014, and Covid-19, starting in 2020.
Four other PHEICs have been declared since the regulations were put into place: H1N1 influenza from 2009 to 2010; Ebola from 2014 to 2016 and from 2019 to 2020; and the Zika virus in 2016.
Currently, the US is reporting over 2,800 probable or confirmed monkeypox cases in 44 states, DC and Puerto Rico, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Globally, there are over 16,500 cases reported in 74 countries.
Monkeypox is a much less severe cousin of the now-eradicated smallpox virus. It is endemic to parts of West and Central Africa and is usually contracted from a rodent or small mammal.
The monkeypox virus can spread through contact with body fluids, sores or items such as clothing and bedding contaminated with the virus. It can also spread from person to person through respiratory droplets, typically in a close setting, according to the CDC.
Anyone who has had contact with someone with a monkeypox-like rash, or who has had contact with someone who has a probable or confirmed case of monkeypox, is at high risk for infection. A large number of cases this year have been in men who have sex with men, and public health officials are focusing their prevention efforts in this group.