The WHO has declared an international health emergency due to the smallpox outbreak, which has affected nearly 17,000 people in 74 countries.
The head of the World Health Organization described the rise in smallpox infection from monkeys as “extraordinary” as it triggered the highest level of alert on Saturday.
“We have an outbreak that has spread rapidly around the world through new modes of transmission that we understand very little about and that meet the criteria of international health regulations,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference. .
Declaring a “public health emergency of international concern,” he said the risk of smallpox was relatively high worldwide, including in Europe and North America, where it is not normally found.
This is the first time the head of the UN health agency has taken such action.
An international emergency is the WHO’s highest alert level, but this designation does not mean that a disease is especially lethal or infectious.
WHO emergency chief Dr. Michael Ryan said the organization has placed smallpox in this category to ensure the global community takes the current outbreak seriously.
“It’s a call to action,” Ryan said, hoping the move would lead to collective action against the disease.
There is no agreement in the WHO on the level of emergency
Ghebreyesus made the statement without agreement among experts on the WHO emergency committee, who remain divided on the need to trigger the highest level of alert.
Detected in early May, the unusual increase in smallpox cases outside central and western African countries where the virus is endemic has spread around the world, with Europe as its epicenter.
The disease has now affected more than 16,836 people in 74 countries, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Declaring a global emergency means that the monkeypox outbreak is an “extraordinary event” that could spread to more countries and requires a coordinated global response.
This is only the 7th time the WHO has used this alert level.
COVID, Ebola and Zika
The UN agency has previously declared emergencies for public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, the Zika virus in Latin America in 2016, and the ongoing effort to eradicate polio.
It only declares a “public health emergency of international concern” in “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected” situations.
Diseases in this category are defined by the UN body as an “extraordinary event” whose spread constitutes a “risk to public health in other states” and may require “coordinated international action”.
The emergency declaration primarily serves as a plea to attract more global resources and attention to an outbreak. Previous announcements have had a mixed impact, as the WHO is largely powerless to get countries to act.
So far, smallpox deaths from monkeys have only been reported in Africa, where a more dangerous version of the virus is spreading, mainly in Nigeria and Congo.
First detected in humans in 1970, monkeypox is less dangerous and contagious than its cousin human smallpox, which was eradicated in 1980.