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The rapidly spreading monkeypox outbreak represents a global health emergency, the World Health Organization’s highest level of alert, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Saturday.
The WHO label – a “public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)” – is designed to trigger a coordinated international response and could unlock funding to collaborate on sharing vaccines and treatments.
Members of an expert committee that met on Thursday to discuss the potential recommendation were split on the decision, with nine members against and six in favour of the declaration, prompting Tedros himself to break the deadlock, he told reporters.
“Although I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern, for the moment this is an outbreak that is concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners,” Tedros told a media briefing in Geneva.
“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus,” he added.
He said the risk of monkeypox – which spreads via close contact and tends to cause flu-like symptoms and pus-filled skin lesions – was moderate globally, except in the Europe, where the WHO has deemed the risk as high.
Previously, Tedros has typically endorsed expert committee recommendations, but the two sources told Reuters earlier on Saturday said he had likely decided to back the highest alert level due to concerns about escalating case rates and a short supply of vaccines and treatments.
So far this year, there have been more than 16,000 cases of monkeypox in more than 75 countries, and five deaths in Africa.
The viral disease has been spreading chiefly in men who have sex with men in the recent outbreak, outside Africa where it is endemic.