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WHO warns ‘high’ risk of monkeypox in Europe as it declares health emergency

The World Health Organisation on Saturday declared the monkeypox outbreak, which has affected nearly 16,000 people in 72 countries, to be a global health emergency -- the highest alarm it can sound.

Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he assessed the risk of monkeypox in the European region as high. Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

“I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference.

He said a committee of experts who met on Thursday was unable to reach a consensus, so it fell on him to decide whether to trigger the highest alert possible.

“WHO’s assessment is that the risk of monkeypox is moderate globally and in all regions, except in the European region where we assess the risk as high,” he added.

Monkeypox has affected over 15,800 people in 72 countries, according to a tally by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published on
July 20.

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 (EC) of experts to decide if monkeypox constitutes a so-called Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) — the UN health agency’s highest alert level.

But a majority advised Tedros that the situation, at that point, had not met the threshold.

The second meeting was called on Thursday with case numbers rising further, where Tedros said he was worried.

“I need your advice in assessing the immediate and mid-term public health implications,” Tedros told the meeting, which lasted more than six hours.

A US health expert sounded a grim warning late on Friday.

“Since the last #monkeypox EC just weeks ago, we’ve seen an exponential rise in cases. It’s inevitable that cases will dramatically rise in the coming weeks & months. That’s why @DrTedros must sound the global alarm,” Lawrence Gostin, the director of the WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, said on Twitter.

“A failure to act will have grave consequences for global health.”

And, on Saturday, he called for “a global action plan with ample funding”, saying there was “no time to lose”.

Warning against discrimination
A viral infection resembling smallpox and first detected in humans in 1970, monkeypox is less dangerous and contagious than smallpox, which was eradicated in 1980.

Ninety-five percent of cases have been transmitted through sexual activity, according to a study of 528 people in 16 countries published in the New England Journal of Medicine — the largest research to date.

Overall, 98 percent of infected people were gay or bisexual men, and around a third were known to have visited sex-on-site venues, such as sex parties or saunas within the previous month.

“This transmission pattern represents both an opportunity to implement targeted public health interventions, and a challenge because in some countries, the communities affected face life-threatening discrimination,”
Tedros said earlier, citing concern that stigma and scapegoating could make the outbreak harder to track.

The European Union’s drug watchdog on Friday recommended for approval the use of Imvanex, a smallpox vaccine, to treat monkeypox.

Imvanex, developed by Danish drugmaker Bavarian Nordic, has been approved in the EU since 2013 for the prevention of smallpox.

It was also considered a potential vaccine for monkeypox because of the similarity between the monkeypox virus and the smallpox virus. 

The first symptoms of monkeypox are fever, headaches, muscle pain and back pain during the course of five days.

Rashes subsequently appear on the face, the palms of hands and soles of feet, followed by lesions, spots and finally scabs.

READ ALSO: WHO says European festivals should go ahead despite monkeypox risk

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HEALTH

EXPLAINED: How to register for the monkeypox vaccine in Vienna

Austria's capital city Vienna has begun registration appointments for those who want to get a monkeypox vaccine. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How to register for the monkeypox vaccine in Vienna

As of September 9th, people can make reservations for monkeypox vaccination in Vienna, authorities announced. It is possible to register for the vaccine using the health service line by calling 1450 or via the Impfservice website.

The City of Vienna has said the pre-registration is needed because all planning will be done through a central system due to a shortage of vaccines.

“Please understand that due to the vaccine shortage, we cannot offer preventive monkeypox vaccination to everyone interested. We can use the reservation platform to quickly allocate available appointments and contact interested parties as soon as there are more vaccines”, the authorities said.

After the registration, people will be contacted to book appointments on September 14th. The first available date will be September 19th.

READ ALSO: Monkeypox in Austria: What causes it and is it serious?

Who should be vaccinated against monkeypox?

Vaccination of the general population is currently not recommended.

Preventive vaccination is only offered to health care workers with a very high risk of exposure to people with monkeypox (designated monkeypox departments/outpatient clinics/offices) and persons with individual risk behaviour (persons with frequently changing sexual contacts), the City of Vienna said.

The health authorities in Vienna also have a specific information sheet in English with more information on the disease.

Monkeypox is a notifiable disease caused by a virus closely related to the smallpox virus and which can cause a condition similar to smallpox but rarely deadly. People with immunodeficiencies, pregnant women and children are at risk of more severe symptoms.

The virus spreads from person to person through contact with infectious skin lesions, via air droplets through speaking, coughing, sneezing, or other body fluids, and when having prolonged and close physical contact, e.g. through sexual intercourse.

READ ALSO: Austria recommends 4th Covid vaccine dose for everyone over 12

Usually, the first symptoms show up 5 to 14 days (at the latest, 21 days) after exposure. These include fever, general exhaustion, headaches, muscle and body aches, gastrointestinal problems and frequently painfully swollen lymph nodes.

“If you have symptoms and have had contact with someone with monkeypox, you must self-isolate at once and call 1450. If you have a confirmed monkeypox infection, you need to stay in self-isolation until the last crust has fallen off”, the Austrian authorities added.

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