UNITED NATIONS/GENEVA: The global outbreak of monkeypox is "clearly unusual and concerning", WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday as he announced to convene an emergency committee next week to assess whether this outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern.
So far this year, over 1,600 confirmed and almost 1,500 suspected cases of monkeypox have been reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from 39 countries, including seven where monkeypox has been detected for years, and 32 newly-affected countries, Ghebreyesus told a media briefing.
Further, so far this year, 72 deaths have been reported from previously-affected countries.
No deaths have been reported so far from the newly-affected countries, although the WHO is seeking to verify news reports from Brazil over a monkeypox-related death.
"The global outbreak of monkeypox is clearly unusual and concerning. It's for that reason that I have decided to convene the Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations next week to assess whether this outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern," he said.
As per the WHO, while disease outbreaks and other acute public health risks are often unpredictable and require a range of responses, the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR) provide an overarching legal framework that defines countries' rights and obligations in handling public health events and emergencies that have the potential to cross borders.
The IHR are an instrument of international law that is legally-binding on 196 countries, including the 194 WHO Member States.
The WHO published interim guidance on the use of smallpox vaccines for monkeypox.
Ghebreyesus said that the global health organisation does not recommend mass vaccination against monkeypox.
"While smallpox vaccines are expected to provide some protection against monkeypox, there is limited clinical data, and limited supply, he said, adding that any decision about whether to use vaccines should be made jointly by individuals who may be at risk and their healthcare provider, based on an assessment of risks and benefits, on a case-by-case basis.
Ghebreyesus said that the WHO's goal is to support countries to contain monkeypox transmission and stop the outbreak with tried-and-tested public health tools including surveillance, contact tracing and isolation of infected patients.
He stressed "it is also essential to increase awareness of risks and actions to reduce onward transmission for the most at-risk groups, including men who have sex with men and their close contacts".
"It's also essential that vaccines are available equitably wherever needed. To that end, WHO is working closely with our Member States and partners to develop a mechanism for fair access to vaccines and treatments," he said.
The WHO is also working with partners and experts from around the world on changing the name of monkeypox virus, its clades and the disease it causes.