‘Here we go again!’ Social media reacts when WHO declares monkeypox a global health emergency

Citing an “extraordinary” situation, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Saturday declared monkeypox a global emergency.

The monkeypox outbreak has now spread to more than 70 countries, according to the Associated Press, prompting Tedros to make the call, “despite a lack of consensus among experts serving on the U.N. health agency’s emergency committee.”

This is the first time Tedros has taken such an action, AP reports.

“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,” Tedros stated. “I know this has not been an easy or straightforward process and that there are divergent views among the members [of the committee].”

While a global emergency is the WHO’s top alert level, the agency’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, indicated Tedros’s decision was made to ensure the world takes monkeypox seriously, and not necessarily because the once-rare virus is particularly transmissible or lethal.

“[Tedros] found that the committee did not reach a consensus, despite having a very open, very useful, very considered debate of the issues, and that since he’s not going against the committee, what he’s recognizing is that there are deep complexities in this issue,” said Ryan. “There are uncertainties on all sides. And he’s reflecting that uncertainty and his determination of the event” to be a global emergency.

Parts of central and west Africa have coped with large outbreaks of the virus for decades, but serious outbreaks have rarely been seen outside the continent. That changed in May when Europe, North America, and other regions began reporting dozens of epidemics.

“The emergency declaration mostly serves as a plea to draw more global resources and attention to an outbreak,” AP reports. “Past announcements had mixed impact, given that the U.N. health agency is largely powerless in getting countries to act.”

Calling monkeypox a “global emergency” elevates the outbreak to an “extraordinary event”  that requires a coordinated global response.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more than 16,000 cases of monkeypox in 74 countries since roughly around May. Fatalities have only been reported in Africa — mainly in Nigeria and Congo — where a more dangerous strain of the virus is currently spreading.

Dr. Rosamund Lewis, the WHO’s leading monkeypox expert, stated this week that 99% of all non-African cases of the virus were found in men, and 98% of those men were having sex with other men.

Two raves in Belgium and Spain are suspected to have started the spread of the outbreaks to Europe and North America.

As American Wire reported in May, the CDC recommended New Yorkers to once again mask up after one Big Apple resident popped up positive for orthopoxvirus — a genus of viruses under which falls smallpox, cowpox, horsepox, and, of course, monkeypox.

“Although I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern for the moment, this is an outbreak that is concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners,” Tedros said. “That means that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups.”

Speaking prior to Tedros’s announcement, a Southampton University senior research fellow in global health, Michael Head, said he was surprised the WHO hadn’t already made the monkeypox declaration, arguing that the requirements for such a declaration were met weeks ago.

Others have questioned whether or not the declaration is warranted, given that monkeypox isn’t severe enough to grab attention and, while the lesions from the virus may be painful, most people recover without the need for medical intervention.

“I think it would be better to be proactive and overreact to the problem instead of waiting to react when it’s too late,” countered Head. The declaration, he said, would possibly push donors like the World Bank to make funds available to stop the spread, particularly in Africa, where it appears animals are the natural monkeypox reservoir.

Meanwhile, some experts in the U.S. fear monkeypox could become an entrenched sexually transmitted disease, like HIV, gonorrhea, and herpes.

Either way, says Dr. Albert Ko, a Yale University professor of public health and epidemiology, it’s time for testing to be rapidly and immediately scaled up.

“The bottom line is we’ve seen a shift in the epidemiology of monkeypox where there’s now widespread, unexpected transmissions,” he said. “There are some genetic mutations in the virus that suggest why that may be happening, but we do need a globally-coordinated response to get it under control.”

“The cases we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg,” Ko continued. “The window has probably closed for us to quickly stop the outbreaks in Europe and the U.S., but it’s not too late to stop monkeypox from causing huge damage to poorer countries without the resources to handle it.”

And already, “equity” is an issue with respect to monkeypox vaccines.

Dr. Placide Mbala, a virologist and the director of the global health department at Congo’s Insititute of national Biomedical Research, noted that, while millions of vaccine doses have already been ordered by countries such as Britain, Canada, Germany, and the US, none have gone to Africa.

“The solution needs to be global,” he said. “Vaccination in the West might help stop the outbreak there, but there will still be cases in Africa. Unless the problem is solved here, the risk to the rest of the world will remain.”

According to U.S. officials, an estimated 1.5 million men are at high risk of contracting monkeypox.

Online, reaction to the declaration is peppered by an understandably distrustful sentiment in a public that clearly remembers how many things the WHO got wrong with COVID-19.



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