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WHO Reconsiders Monkeypox Emergency

FILE: a vaccine virus on a display at Bavarian Nordic, near Munich, Germany,. The company is the only one in the world to have approval for a smallpox vaccine called Jynneos in the U.S. and Imvanex in Europe, which is also effective against monkeypox. Taken 5.24.2022

The World Health Organization said Wednesday it will reconvene its monkeypox experts to decide if the worsening outbreak now constitutes a global public health emergency -- the highest level of alert.

The UN health agency's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he would hold a second meeting of the emergency committee on monkeypox, with more than 6,000 cases now confirmed in 58 countries.

"I continue to be concerned by the scale and spread of the virus," Tedros told a press conference from the WHO's headquarters in Geneva.

"Testing remains a challenge and it's highly probable that there are a significant number of cases not being picked up."

A surge in monkeypox infections has been reported since early May outside the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic.

On June 23, the WHO convened an emergency committee of experts to decide if monkeypox constitutes a so-called Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) -- the highest alarm that the WHO can sound.

But a majority found the situation had not yet crossed that threshold.

I plan to reconvene the emergency committee so they're updated on the current epidemiology and evolution of the monkeypox outbreak, and implementation of counter measures," Tedros said.

"I will bring them together in the week of July 18 or sooner if needed."

The WHO's 16-member emergency committee on monkeypox is chaired by Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who is a former director of the WHO's Vaccines and Immunization Department.

Tedros said Europe was the current epicenter of the outbreak, recording more than 80 percent of monkeypox cases globally this year.

In Africa, cases are appearing in countries not previously affected and record numbers are being recorded in places which have previous experience with monkeypox, he added.

There have been six PHEIC declarations since 2009, the last being for Covid-19 in 2020 -- though the sluggish global response to the alarm bell still rankles at the WHO's headquarters.

A PHEIC was declared after a third emergency committee meeting on January 30 that year. But it was only after March 11, when Tedros described the rapidly worsening situation as a pandemic, that many countries seemed to wake up to the danger.

The WHO's current plan to contain the spread focuses on raising awareness among affected population groups and encouraging safe behaviors and protective measures.

"WHO is working with countries and vaccine manufacturers to coordinate the sharing of vaccine, which are currently scarce and need to be accessible to the most at risk people," said Tedros.