LONDON — Monkeypox is not yet a global health emergency, the World Health Organization (WHO) ruled on Saturday, although WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was deeply concerned about the outbreak.
“I am deeply concerned about the monkeypox outbreak, this is clearly an evolving health threat that my colleagues and I in the WHO Secretariat are following extremely closely,” Tedros said.
The “global emergency” label currently only applies to the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing efforts to eradicate polio, and the UN agency has stepped back from applying it to the monkeypox outbreak after advice from a meeting of international experts.
There have been more than 3,200 confirmed cases of monkeypox and one death reported in the last six weeks from 48 countries where it does not usually spread, according to WHO.
So far this year almost 1,500 cases and 70 deaths in central Africa, where the disease is more common, have also been reported, chiefly in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Monkeypox, a viral illness causing flu-like symptoms and skin lesions, has been spreading largely in men who have sex with men outside the countries where it is endemic.
It has two clades – the West African strain, which is believed to have a fatality rate of around 1% and which is the strain spreading in Europe and elsewhere, and the Congo Basin strain, which has a fatality rate closer to 10%, according to WHO.
There are vaccines and treatments available for monkeypox, although they are in limited supply.
The WHO decision is likely to be met with some criticism from global health experts, who said ahead of the meeting that the outbreak met the criteria to be called an emergency.
However, others pointed out that the WHO is in a difficult position after COVID-19. Its January 2020 declaration that the new coronavirus represented a public health emergency was largely ignored by many governments until around six weeks later, when the agency used the word “pandemic” and countries took action.