LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization convenes its emergency committee Thursday to consider if the spiraling outbreak of monkeypox warrants being declared a global emergency. But some experts say the WHO’s decision to act only after the disease spilled into the West could entrench the grotesque inequities that arose between rich and poor countries during the coronavirus pandemic.
Declaring monkeypox to be a global emergency would mean the UN health agency considers the outbreak to be an “extraordinary event” and that the disease is at risk of spreading across even more borders, possibly requiring a global response. It would also give monkeypox the same distinction as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing effort to eradicate polio.
The WHO said it did not expect to announce any decisions made by its emergency committee before Friday.
Many scientists doubt any such declaration would help to curb the epidemic, since the developed countries recording the most recent cases are already moving quickly to shut it down.
Last week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the recent monkeypox epidemic identified in more than 40 countries, mostly in Europe, as “unusual and concerning.” Monkeypox has sickened people for decades in central and west Africa, where one version of the disease kills up to 10 percent of people infected. In the epidemic beyond Africa so far, no deaths have been reported.
“If WHO was really worried about monkeypox spread, they could have convened their emergency committee years ago when it reemerged in Nigeria in 2017 and no one knew why we suddenly had hundreds of cases,” said Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO advisory groups. “It is a bit curious that WHO only called their experts when the disease showed up in white countries,” he said.
Until last month, monkeypox had not caused sizeable outbreaks beyond Africa. Scientists haven’t found any major genetic changes in the virus and a leading adviser to the WHO said last month the surge of cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity among gay and bisexual men at two raves in Spain and Belgium.
To date, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed more than 3,300 cases of monkeypox in 42 countries where the virus hasn’t been typically seen. More than 80 percent of cases are in Europe. Meanwhile, Africa has already seen more than 1,400 cases this year, including 62 deaths.
To date, the vast majority of cases in Europe have been in men who are gay or bisexual, or other men who have sex with men, but scientists warn anyone in close contact with an infected person or their clothing or bedsheets is at risk of infection, regardless of their sexual orientation. People with monkeypox often experience symptoms like fever, body aches and a rash; most recover within weeks without needing medical care.
Even if the WHO announces monkeypox is a global emergency, it’s unclear what impact that might have.