By now you’ve probably heard about the recent rise in monkeypox cases, however, experts weren’t calling it an emergency until now. Monkeypox, which has now spread to 75 countries and sickened at least 16,000 people, has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The declaration came after WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus overruled a panel of advisors who could not come to a consensus on whether the virus had reached that level of concern.
Could the delayed response hurt us?
“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” for a public health emergency, Tedros said during a media briefing on Saturday.
The WHO panel was hesitant to make the declaration because the virus is still spreading mostly in the primary risk group, men who have sex with men, and not among more vulnerable groups, including pregnant women, older adults or children, The New York Times reported. However, of the 3,000 cases now reported in the United States, two were children.
Only COVID-19 and polio have received the same designation, which can help prompt member countries to invest resources to help curb the outbreak, and share vaccines and treatments.
It could take a year or more to tame the outbreak, Dr. James Lawler, co-director of the University of Nebraska’s Global Center for Health Security, told the Times.
So what does this all mean?
“We’ve now unfortunately really missed the boat on being able to put a lid on the outbreak earlier,” Lawler says. “Now, it’s going to be a real struggle to be able to contain and control spread.”
Some in the LGBTQ community have said the virus has not received the attention it deserves, similar to the early days of the HIV epidemic, according to the Times.
Still, the WHO’s declaration is “better late than never,” Dr. Boghuma Titanji, an infectious diseases doctor at Emory University in Atlanta, told the Times.
But with the delay, “one can argue that the response globally has continued to suffer from a lack ofcoordination, with individual countries working at very different paces to address the problem,” she adds. “There is almost capitulation that we cannot stop the monkeypox virus from establishing itself in a more permanent way.”
Governments need to prepare for new epidemics without notice, Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told the Times.
After a global COVID pandemic, this is news you don’t want to hear. However, according to experts, this is the new normal.
“As much as the world is tired of infectious disease crises, they are part of a new normal that is going to demand a lot of ongoing attention and resources,” he shares. “We need global vaccine and therapeutics production and stockpiling approaches that don’t yet exist.”
Not coordinating a response has also meant lost opportunities to collect data in large multinational studies.
“This inability to characterize the epidemiological situation in that region represents a substantial challenge to designing interventions for controlling this historically neglected disease,” Tedros said about the West and Central African countries where monkeypox is endemic, the Times reported.
What to expect with monkeypox
If you contract monkeypox, there are a few symptoms you can expect.
Symptoms in the latest monkeypox outbreak include lesions in the throat, urethra and rectum that can be very painful. Fever, body aches or respiratory symptoms are typically associated with the disease, but those symptoms are not being experienced by all during this outbreak, the Times reports.
Meanwhile, recent genetic analyses of samples from infected patients showed the monkeypox genome has collected nearly 50 genetic mutations since 2018, far more than the six or seven it would have been expected to express in that period.
Whether the mutations have changed the transmission, severity or other qualities of the virus isn’t clear, but the data hints that monkeypox may be spreading more easily since 2018. Around 99% of cases reported outside of Africa this year were among men and 98% among men who have sex with men, according to CNBC.
However, experts have made it clear that anyone can catch monkeypox. In fact, experts believe that the virus may beginspreading to groups outside of the LGBTQ community.
It is not uncommon for a virus outbreak to start in one particular group or setting before spreading more widely in the general population, Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer at the WHO, told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe”, noting that health authorities could take cues from the early findings.
“This really might be the canary in the mine that’s alerting to us a new disease threat that could spread to other groups,” she continued.
For young children, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals who are more vulnerable to the virus, this could mean more severe cases.
“If it does spread to other groups — particularly to people who are vulnerable to severe monkeypox disease, which we know there are certain groups that are more prone to severe illness — then we might see increased public health impact,” she shares.
Can monkeypox be contained?
Monkeypox can be contained, however, “It really will require a major concerted effort locally, nationally and globally,” according to UCLA epidemiologist Anne Rimoin, who has studied monkeypox for decades.
U.S. officials have already expanded testing, made tens of thousands of vaccines available and made plans to release another 1.6 million doses in the coming months, NPR reports.
However, the limited supplies have not matched the demand, some health officials have reported. And despite limited testing, case numbers have grown so rapidly in recent weeks. This insinuates that a larger response may be necessary to contain the outbreak, experts say – if containment is still possible.
In the meantime, the CDC recommends protecting yourself by doing the following:
Avoid close contact (including sexual contact) with people who are sick or have a rash and contaminated items
Do not kiss, hug, or touch.
Do not share eating utensils or cups.
Do not touch the bedding or clothing of a sick person.
Wash your hands
Wash hands often with soap and water. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
Avoid animals when traveling
Don’t touch live or dead wild animals.
Do not touch or eat products that come from wild animals.
Avoid touching materials, such as bedding, that have been used by animals.
If you are traveling to work with animals, wear appropriate protective equipment and take additional precautions.
Seek additional information and guidance if working with animals suspected of monkeypox infection