Without Consensus, WHO Declares Monkeypox Global Health Emergency

Despite the lessons learned from SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, monkeypox is still spreading worldwide, and those lessons do not seem to be halting its progress. The WHO hopes to change that.

On Saturday, July 23, a panel of advisers convened to evaluate the evidence and decide if monkeypox should be declared a global health emergency. However, the panel could not come to a consensus, the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, overruled the panel and declared a “public health emergency of international concern.” Significantly, the WHO currently uses this highest designation describe only 2 other diseases, Covid-19 and polio.

“This process demonstrates once again that this vital tool needs to be sharpened to make it more effective,” Ghebryesus said, referring to the WHO’s panel indecision.

Although monkeypox is not a new disease, it has risen 77% from late June through early July, according to the data from WHO. Monkeypox is tracked globally, and it became a reportable disease in 2004 after an outbreak in 2003 in the United States. However, since monkeypox is rarely found in North America and Europe, that the epicenter is Europe and monkeypox is spreading widely in North America, this outbreak is highly abnormal.

So far, the monkeypox outbreaks seems to be concentrated with men who have sex with men. Since May 2022, the disease has spread to 16,000 cases reported and 5 deaths from 75 countries and territories. It has a moderate risk globally and in all regions. The only place the risk is high is in the European region where the epicenter of the outbreak is. Thus far, all 5 deaths have been found in Africa.

Ghebreyesus wrote in his statement about the report the panel published, “WHO’s assessment is that the risk of monkeypox is moderate globally and in all regions, except in the European region where we assess the risk as high. There is also a clear risk of further international spread, although the risk of interference with international traffic remains low for the moment. So, 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.”

However, Ghebryesus recognized potential problems from lessons learned from the AIDs pandemic, and emphasized that “it’s therefore essential that all countries work closely with communities of men who have sex with men, to design and deliver effective information and services, and to adopt measures that protect the health, human rights and dignity of affected communities.”

To further WHO’s fight against stigma and discrimination, he called on civil society organizations, specifically those experienced with working with HIV patients, and said that "stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus.”

With this declaration, globally, monkeypox is treated as a public health risk and requires a coordinated international response. WHO member countries may now invest significant resources to controlling an outbreak. The countries may also give more funding to fight the disease and inspire nations to share vaccines, treatments, and other essential resources for containing the outbreak.

Fortunately, monkeypox is not threatening to be a disruption in trade or travel, the director-general said. In contrast, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raised the travel alert to a Level 2 on June 6, 2022, due to the monkeypox outbreak.