The World Health Organization will convene an emergency committee meeting to assess whether the monkeypox outbreak is a public health emergency of international concern, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.
“I think it’s now clear that there is an unusual situation, meaning even the virus is behaving unusually from how it used to behave in the past,” Tedros said. “But not only that, it’s also affecting more and more countries, and we believe that it needs also some coordinated response because of the geographic spread.”
WHO defines a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.”
The organization says that the definition implies that a situation is “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; may require immediate international action.”
This definition comes from the International Health Regulations, which were created in 2005 and represent a legal agreement involving 196 countries with the aim of helping the international community prevent and respond to public health risks that have the potential to spread around the globe.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes the regulations as “a legally binding agreement of 196 countries to build the capability to detect and report potential public health emergencies worldwide. IHR require that all countries have the ability to detect, assess, report, and respond to public health events.”
Two PHEICs are ongoing: polio, which began in 2014, and Covid-19, starting in 2020.
Four others have been declared since the regulations were put into place: H1N1 influenza from 2009 to 2010, Ebola from 2014 to 2016 and from 2019 to 2020, and the Zika virus in 2016.
“WHO is also working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes,” Tedros said. “We will make announcements about the new names as soon as possible.”
Tedros said there have been more than 1,600 confirmed and almost 1,500 suspected monkeypox cases reported to WHO this year from 39 countries, seven of which are places where monkeypox has been detected for years. The other 32 are newly affected countries.
Seventy-two deaths have been reported this year from previously affected countries, and although none has been reported from newly affected countries, WHO is seeking to verify reports from Brazil of a monkeypox-related death.
According to the CDC, as of June 13, there are 65 confirmed or probable monkeypox cases in the United States.
WHO’s goals are to support countries in containing transmission and to stop the outbreak with public health tools, Tedros said, adding that it is essential to raise awareness of risks and actions to reduce transmission in those groups who are most at risk.
Although WHO doesn’t recommend mass vaccination against monkeypox, it published interim guidance Tuesday on using smallpox vaccines for monkeypox, he said.
“While smallpox vaccines are expected to provide some protection against monkeypox, there is limited clinical data and limited supply,” Tedros said. “Any decision about whether to use vaccines should be made jointly by individuals who may be at risk and their health care provider based on an assessment of risks and benefits on a case-by-case basis.”
He also noted that it’s essential that vaccines are available equitably wherever they are needed, and he said WHO is working with member states and partners to develop a mechanism for fair access to vaccines and treatments.