Today, the World Health Organization has declared monkeypox to be a public health emergency of international concern, making it the first to reach the agency’s highest alert level since the COVID-19 outbreak in January 2020. This rare designation—only seven such emergencies have been declared since 2009—is intended as a prompt for affected nations around the world to begin a coordinated response to the virus, as cases have increased exponentially in the past few weeks.
“We have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly, through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, in a statement. “For all of these reasons, I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern.”
While monkeypox has historically spread at low levels in parts of central and western Africa, a recent spike in infections in Europe—which currently counts 80% of worldwide cases—has caused alarm as a potential springboard for the virus to travel around the globe. In the U.S., more than 2,500 cases have been identified across 44 states, with Biden already reportedly considering declaring a public health emergency ahead of the WHO’s announcement today. (No deaths have been reported in either Europe or the United States from monkeypox, and fatality is rare.)
As a less severe relative of smallpox, there are already vaccine strategies in place, and in both the U.K. and New York City, a vaccination rollout has begun. The vast majority of cases thus far have been identified among men who have sex with men, who are currently the priority to receive the vaccine; the UN has already warned that public health messaging should remain measured in order to avoid “reinforcing homophobic and racist stereotypes and exacerbating stigma” for the LGBTQ+ community and African travelers.
While the past seven days have seen a dramatic increase in cases across Europe and the U.S.—as well as in a host of other countries where the virus was previously unreported—health experts, including Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the head of the emerging diseases and zoonosis unit at the WHO, have noted that in terms of both infectiousness and fatality, monkeypox is not expected to cause the same level of global disruption as COVID-19.