LONDON ( Associated Press) — The World Health Organization is convening an emergency committee Thursday to consider whether a growing monkeypox outbreak justifies declaring a global emergency. But some experts say the WHO’s decision to act only after the disease has spread to the West could exacerbate the grotesque inequalities created between rich and poor countries during the coronavirus pandemic.
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Declaring monkeypox a global emergency would mean that the UN health agency considers the outbreak an “extraordinary event” and that the disease risks moving beyond even more borders, possibly requiring a global response. It would also give monkeypox the same distinction as the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing efforts to eradicate polio.
The WHO said it does not expect any decisions made by its emergency committee to be announced until Friday.
Many scientists doubt that any such announcement will help curb the epidemic, as the developed countries, which have the most recent cases, are already rapidly trying to stop it.
Last week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the recent monkeypox epidemic in more than 40 countries, mostly in Europe, “unusual and alarming.”
Monkeypox has plagued people in Central and West Africa for decades, where a variant of the disease kills up to 10 percent of those infected. The variant of the disease seen in Europe and elsewhere typically has a mortality rate of less than 1 percent, and so far no deaths have been reported outside of Africa.
“If WHO was really worried about the spread of monkeypox, they could have convened their emergency committee many years ago when it reappeared in Nigeria in 2017 and no one knew why we suddenly had hundreds of cases,” said Oyewale Tomori. , a Nigerian virologist working for several WHO Advisory Groups. “It’s a bit curious that the WHO only called in its experts when the disease was found in white countries,” he said.
Until last month, monkeypox did not cause significant outbreaks outside of Africa. Scientists have not found any mutations in the virus that indicate it is more contagious, and a top WHO adviser said last month’s spike in European cases was likely linked to sexual activity among gay and bisexual men at two parties in Spain and Belgium. .
To date, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed more than 3,300 cases of monkeypox in 42 countries where the virus has not normally been seen. More than 80 percent of cases are in Europe. Meanwhile, more than 1,400 cases have already been reported in Africa this year, including 62 deaths.
David Fiedler, Senior Global Health Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said WHO’s newfound focus on monkeypox as it spreads outside of Africa could inadvertently exacerbate the gap between rich and poor countries seen during COVID-19.
“There may be legitimate reasons why the WHO raised the alarm only when monkeypox spread to rich countries but to poor countries, which looks like a double standard,” Fiedler said. He said the global community is still fighting to get the world’s poor vaccinated against the coronavirus, and that it’s unclear if Africans even want monkeypox vaccines given competing priorities like malaria and HIV.
“Unless African governments specifically request vaccines, it might be a bit lenient to send them because it is in the West’s interest to stop the export of monkeypox,” Fiedler said.
The WHO has also proposed setting up a vaccine exchange mechanism to help affected countries that could see doses reach wealthy countries such as the UK, which has the largest monkeypox outbreak outside of Africa, and has recently expanded the use of vaccines.
To date, the vast majority of cases in Europe have been among gay or bisexual men, or other men who have sex with men, but scientists warn that anyone in close contact with an infected person, or their clothing or sheets, is at risk. infections. regardless of their sexual orientation. People with monkeypox often experience symptoms such as fever, body aches, and a rash; most recover within a few weeks without medical attention.
Even if the WHO declares monkeypox a global emergency, it is not clear what the consequences of this would be.
In January 2020, WHO declared COVID-19 an international emergency. But few countries took notice until March, when the organization called it a pandemic, weeks after many other authorities did. The WHO was later heavily criticized for its many mistakes during the pandemic, which some experts believe may have contributed to a faster response to monkeypox.
“After COVID, WHO does not want to be the last to declare a monkeypox emergency,” said Amanda Glassman, executive vice president of the Center for Global Development. “This may not rise to the level of a COVID-like emergency, but it is still a public health emergency that needs to be addressed.”
Salim Abdul Karim, an epidemiologist and vice chancellor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said the WHO and others must do more to stop monkeypox in Africa and elsewhere, but was not sure that declaring a global emergency would help.
“There is a misplaced idea that Africa is a poor, helpless continent, when in fact we know how to deal with epidemics,” Abdul Karim said. He said stopping the outbreak ultimately depends on things like surveillance, isolating patients and educating the public.
“Vaccines may be needed in Europe to stop monkeypox, but here we have been able to control it with very simple measures,” he said.