The World Health Organization announced Tuesday that it is convening an emergency committee to decide if monkeypox should be treated as a highest-level “public health emergency of international concern.”
“For that reason, I have decided to convene the Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations next week, to assess whether this outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern,” he said of the meeting on June 23.
If granted, it would be the highest level of warning issued by the UN agency, one that currently applies only to COVID-19 and polio.
Tuesday’s announcement came as the WHO had recorded at least 1,600 confirmed cases as well as an extra 1,500 suspected ones so far this year, with 72 of them fatal.
They have been found in 39 different countries — including “32 newly affected countries,” the WHO chief said, which includes the US.
It has spread and changed so much that the WHO is considering changing the name of the virus and the disease it causes from monkeypox, the agency’s chief said.
Despite the clear concern, Tedros stressed that his agency currently “does not recommend mass vaccination against monkeypox.”
“While smallpox vaccines are expected to provide some protection against monkeypox, there is limited clinical data, and limited supply,” he told journalists.
Instead, it is “essential to increase awareness of risks and actions to reduce onward transmission for the most at-risk groups, including men who have sex with men, and their close contacts,” Tedros said.
On Monday, scientists said they had detected fragments of the virus in semen in a handful of patients in Italy, raising questions over whether sexual transmission of the disease is a possibility.
Many cases confirmed in the current outbreak are among sexual partners who have had such close contact.
“Having an infectious virus in semen is a factor that tips the balance strongly in favour of the hypothesis that sexual transmission is one of the ways in which this virus is transmitted,” Francesco Vaia, general director of the Spallanzani Institute, told Reuters.
The virus causes flu-like symptoms and skin lesions, and spreads through close contact.
The majority of deaths have been in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the disease is long known to have spread, although health officials are examining a fatality tied to a possible case in Brazil, the WHO said.
Despite the WHO’s advice against mass vaccinations, the European Union said Tuesday it has purchased almost 110,000 vaccine doses to help tackle the outbreak. The US previously confirmed that it had bought at least 500,000 vaccines.