The World Health Organization’s chief said Saturday that the monkeypox outbreak was a deeply concerning evolving threat but did not currently amount to a global public health emergency.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus convened a committee of experts on Thursday to decide whether to sound the UN health agency’s strongest alarm over the outbreak, which has mainly affected western Europe.
A surge of monkeypox cases has been detected since early May outside of the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic. Most of the new cases have been in Western Europe.
More than 3,200 confirmed cases and one death have now been reported to the WHO from more than 50 countries in total this year.
“The emergency committee shared serious concerns about the scale and speed of the current outbreak,” noting many unknowns about the spread and gaps in the data, Tedros said after considering their report, which he said represented a consensus position between the committee members’ differing views.
“Overall, in the report, they advised me that at this moment the event does not constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which is the highest level of alert WHO can issue, but recognised that the convening of the committee itself reflects the increasing concern about the international spread of monkeypox.”
Tedros announced on June 14 that he would convene an emergency committee to assess whether the outbreak constituted a PHEIC.
The outbreak in newly-affected countries continues to be primarily among men who have sex with men, and who have reported recent sex with new or multiple partners, he told Thursday’s meeting.
There have been six PHEIC declarations since 2009, the last being for Covid-19 in 2020 — though the sluggish global response to the alarm bell still rankles at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters.
A PHEIC was declared after a third emergency committee meeting on January 30. But it was only after March 11, when Tedros described the rapidly-worsening situation as a pandemic, that many countries seemed to wake up to the danger.
The normal initial symptoms of monkeypox include a high fever, swollen lymph nodes and a blistery chickenpox-like rash.
The WHO’s 16-member emergency committee on monkeypox is chaired by Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who is a former director of the WHO’s Vaccines and Immunisation Department.
It is co-chaired by Nicola Low, an associate professor of epidemiology and public health medicine from Bern University.
The other 14 members are from institutions in Brazil, Britain, Japan, Morocco, Nigeria, Russia, Senegal, Switzerland, Thailand and the United States.
Eight advisers from Canada, the DR Congo, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States also took part in Thursday’s hybrid meeting.
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