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The World Health Organization will hold an emergency meeting to assess whether the current spread of monkeypox constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC.
A special committee will meet next week to advise on the spread in non-endemic countries, Hans Kluge, regional director of the WHO for Europe, said at a media briefing Wednesday. A PHEIC is the WHO’s highest alert level, and such a declaration can be used to encourage nations to cooperate on countermeasures, while letting the agency recommend steps such as travel advisories.
Monkeypox, which has been afflicting developing countries for years, has spread across Europe and the US in recent weeks. The virus belongs to the Orthopoxvirus genus, which includes the variola virus, the cause of smallpox, but it’s less contagious and symptoms are milder. A large proportion of cases have been among men who have sex with men, and many have occurred within sexual networks, though anyone can contract the disease.
“The magnitude of the outbreak poses a real risk,” Kluge said. “The longer the virus circulates, the more it will extend its reach and the stronger the disease’s foothold will get in non-endemic countries.”
Europe remains the epicenter of the escalating outbreak, with 25 countries reporting more than 1,500 cases, or 85% of the global total, Kluge said. Some cases progress to “nasty complications” such as secondary infections, and a small number of patients are hospitalized, the WHO said.
“We may still see some further spread, but the effort is directed toward preventing a pandemic,” said Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
When the WHO declared the coronavirus a PHEIC in late January 2020, there were thousands of reported cases around the world and more than 200 deaths in China.