WHO declares monkeypox a global health emergency as infections soar

The World Health Organization on Saturday declared the international monkeypox outbreak a global emergency, a decision that underscores concerns about rapidly spreading infections.

The decision to label the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the highest level of alert the WHO can issue, is expected to marshal new funding and to pressure governments into action. More than 16,500 cases have been reported in 75 countries.

“In short, we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly through new modes of transmission about which we understand too little,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Saturday.

The emergency declaration came after a second meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, which declined to take the step a month ago.

The committee remained divided on whether the outbreak constituted an emergency, Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, but he took the unusual step of declaring an emergency anyway.

Some experts and public health advocates criticized the decision not to issue the highest alert earlier, saying a declaration would have improved global coordination to contain the virus.

Monkeypox has spread across the world at an unprecedented rate in the last two months. The zoonotic virus, which causes flu-like symptoms and rashes that spread across the body, has been around for decades and is endemic in parts of Africa.

But infections during the latest outbreak have surged in countries that have not historically reported monkeypox.

Infections in the ongoing outbreak are reported overwhelmingly among men who have sex with men, and experts believe close contact during sexual activity is a major driver of transmission. 

 The virus transmits through other forms of skin-to-skin contact and in households through prolonged respiratory spread and the sharing of contaminated items. Authorities have also reported small numbers of women and children infected with monkeypox.