The expanding monkeypox outbreak in more than 70 countries is an “extraordinary” situation that qualifies as a global emergency, the World Health Organization chief said Saturday, a declaration that could spur further investment in treating the once-rare disease and worsen the scramble for scarce vaccines.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the decision on calling monkeypox a global emergency despite a lack of consensus among experts on the U.N. health agency’s emergency committee, saying he acted as “a tiebreaker.”
WHO’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, said the director-general declared monkeypox a global emergency to ensure that the world takes the current outbreaks seriously.
Although monkeypox has been established in parts of central and west Africa for decades, it was not known to spark large outbreaks beyond the continent or to spread widely among people until May, when authorities detected dozens of epidemics in Europe, North America and elsewhere.
Last month, WHO’s expert committee said the monkeypox outbreak did not yet amount to an international emergency, but the panel convened this week to reevaluate the situation.
WHO’s top monkeypox expert, Dr. Rosamund Lewis, said this week that 99% of all the monkeypox cases beyond Africa were in men and that of those, 98% involved men who have sex with men.
Experts suspect the monkeypox outbreaks in Europe and North America were spread via sex at two raves in Belgium and Spain.
Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, said WHO’s emergency declaration could help donors like the World Bank make funds available to stop the outbreaks both in the West and in Africa.
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