News Monkeypox declared global health emergency amid rapid spread and ‘new modes of transmission’
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Monkeypox declared global health emergency amid rapid spread and ‘new modes of transmission’

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The World Health Organisation has declared the monkeypox outbreak a ‘global health emergency’ as cases surge around the world and not enough is known about how it is spreading.

The declaration — the highest alert that can be issued — came after its second emergency meeting and as confirmed cases since May reached 16,000 in 74 countries, with five deaths.

As of July 19, Australia had reported 41 confirmed or probable cases of monkeypox, with most in NSW (22) and Victoria (15).

WHO chief Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus took the decision into his own hands after the committee was unable to reach consensus and he warned there was risk of more international spread.

It was the first time the chief of the United Nations health agency has taken such an action.

Declaring a global emergency means the monkeypox outbreak is an “extraordinary event” that could spill into more countries and requires a coordinated global response.

“In short, 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 in the international health regulations,” Dr Tedros said.

The declaration is a rally cry for countries to take the disease seriously and could spur more resources and action on vaccines and treatments.

The existing smallpox vaccine currently provides good protection against monkeypox.

People queue to recieve a vaccine which is effective against monkeypox. Photo: Getty

There are now three current global health emergencies — monkeypox, the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing efforts to eradicate polio.

Previous declarations include 2014 West African Ebola outbreak, the Zika virus in Latin America in 2016 and the ongoing effort to eradicate polio.

“I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern,” said Dr Tedros.

“For the moment this is an outbreak that’s concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those who have multiple partners.

“That means that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right right groups.”

Dr Tedros said the risk of monkeypox was moderate globally except in Europe where the risk was high.

Although monkeypox has been established in parts of central and west Africa for decades, it was not known to spark large outbreaks beyond the continent or to spread widely among people until May, when authorities detected dozens of epidemics in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

To date, monkeypox deaths have only been reported in Africa, where a more dangerous version of the virus is spreading, mainly in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Africa, monkeypox mainly spreads to people from infected wild animals like rodents, in limited outbreaks that typically have not crossed borders.

In Europe, North America and elsewhere, however, monkeypox is spreading among people with no links to animals or recent travel to Africa.

The WHO’s top monkeypox expert, Dr Rosamund Lewis, said this week that 99 per cent of all the monkeypox cases beyond Africa were in men and that of those, 98 per cent involved men who have sex with men.

Experts suspect the monkeypox outbreaks in Europe and North America were spread via sex at two raves in Belgium and Spain.

Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, said it was surprising the WHO had not already declared monkeypox a global emergency, explaining that the conditions were arguably met weeks ago.

Some experts have questioned whether such a declaration would help, arguing the disease isn’t severe enough to warrant the attention and that rich countries battling monkeypox already have the funds to do so; most people recover without needing medical attention, although the lesions may be painful.

“I think it would be better to be proactive and overreact to the problem instead of waiting to react when it’s too late,” Mr Head said.

-with AAP