“In short, we have an outbreak that has spread across the world rapidly through new transmission routes that we know very little about,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Saturday.
The emergency declaration came after the second meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, which refused to take the step a month ago. Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the committee remained divided on whether the outbreak constituted an emergency, but he took the unusual step of declaring a state of emergency anyway. Some experts and public health advocates criticized the decision not to issue a red alert earlier, saying the announcement would have improved global coordination to contain the virus.
Monkeypox has spread worldwide at an unprecedented rate in the past two months. The zoonotic virus, which causes flu-like symptoms and rashes that spreads throughout the body, has been around for decades and is endemic to parts of Africa. But infections during the last outbreak rose in countries that historically did not report monkeypox.
Infections in the ongoing outbreak have been reported largely among men who have sex with men, and experts believe close contact during sexual activity is the main driver of transmission. The virus is transmitted through other forms of skin-to-skin contact and in homes through prolonged respiratory spread and sharing of contaminated items. Authorities have also reported small numbers of women and children with monkeypox.
Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the outbreak could be halted if countries worked with communities of MSM to contain the virus, while emphasizing that the world must avoid stigmatizing the group.
Few deaths were reported, although some men were hospitalized with excruciating pain associated with lesions near the genitals.
Spain leads the world in confirmed cases with more than 3,100 infections, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking. The US has the second-highest toll at around 2,900, with Germany and the UK each reporting more than 2,200 infections.
On Friday, health authorities reported the first two US cases of monkeypox in children.
The pediatric cases, discovered this week in an infant and toddler, are likely the result of transmission at home, according to the CDC.
The WHO’s action is unlikely to have a direct impact on the US response. But it could pressure the Biden administration to declare monkeypox a public health emergency, which could increase funding and force states and local authorities to report more data to the Centers for Disease Control.
Experts say monkeypox slips reflect early response to coronavirus
During an interview with Washington Post Live on Friday, CDC Director Rochelle Walinsky said the inconsistent data prevents the agency’s ability to monitor trends in race, ethnicity, sexual behavior and vaccination.
“And again, as we have been with Covid, we are again challenged by the fact that we have the agency not have the authority to receive this data,” Walinsky said.
Because monkeypox belongs to the same family of viruses as the more deadly smallpox, vaccines and stockpiled treatments should smallpox return, can be used to prevent and treat monkeypox.
Lina H. Sun contributed to this report.