By MARIA CHENG, AP Medical Writer
LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization convened its emergency committee Thursday to consider whether the spiraling monkeypox outbreak warrants declaring a global emergency. But some experts say the WHO’s decision to act only after the disease has spread to the West could entrench the grotesque inequalities that emerged between rich and poor countries during the coronavirus pandemic.
Declaring monkeypox a global emergency would mean the UN health agency considers the outbreak an “extraordinary event” and the disease is at risk of spreading across more borders, possibly requiring a global response. . It would also give monkeypox the same distinction as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing effort to eradicate polio.
The WHO said it did not expect to announce any decisions made by its emergency committee before Friday.
Many scientists doubt that such a declaration will help curb the epidemic, as the developed countries with the most recent cases are already moving quickly to stop it.
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Last week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the recent monkeypox epidemic identified in more than 40 countries, mainly in Europe, as “unusual and worrying.” Monkeypox has sickened people for decades in central and western Africa, where a version of the disease kills up to 10% of people infected. In the epidemic beyond Africa so far, no deaths have been reported.
“If the WHO was really concerned about the spread of monkeypox, they could have convened their emergency committee years ago when it resurfaced in Nigeria in 2017 and no one knew why we suddenly had hundreds of cases,” said Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO Advisory Groups. “It’s a bit curious that the WHO only called in its experts when the disease appeared in white countries,” he said.
Until last month, monkeypox had not caused any major outbreaks beyond Africa. Scientists have found no major genetic changes in the virus, and a top WHO adviser said last month that the rise in cases in Europe was likely linked to sexual activity among gay and bisexual men at two raves in Spain and Belgium.
To date, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed more than 3,300 cases of monkeypox in 42 countries where the virus is not normally seen. More than 80% of the cases are in Europe. Meanwhile, Africa has already seen more than 1,400 cases this year, including 62 deaths.
David Fidler, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the WHO’s new attention to monkeypox amid its spread beyond Africa could inadvertently worsen the divide between rich and poor countries seen during COVID. -19.
“There may be legitimate reasons why the WHO only raised the alarm when monkeypox spread to rich countries, but to poor countries, that seems like a double standard,” Fidler said. He said the global community was still struggling to ensure the world’s poor were vaccinated against the coronavirus and it was unclear whether Africans wanted monkeypox vaccines, given competing priorities such as malaria and HIV.
“Unless African governments specifically ask for vaccines, it might be a bit patronizing to send them because it is in the West’s interest to prevent monkeypox from being exported,” Fidler said.
The WHO has also proposed creating a vaccine-sharing mechanism to help affected countries, which could see doses shipped to wealthy countries like Britain, which has the biggest monkeypox outbreak outside of Africa, and recently expanded their use of vaccines.
To date, the vast majority of cases in Europe have been in men who are gay or bisexual, 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 runs the risk of becoming infected. regardless of their sexual orientation. People with monkeypox often experience symptoms such as fever, body aches, and rash; most recover within weeks without needing medical attention.
Even if the WHO announces monkeypox as a global emergency, it’s unclear what impact it might have.
In January 2020, the 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 criticized for its multiple mistakes during the pandemic, which some experts said could be prompting a faster response to monkeypox.
“After COVID, the WHO does not want to be the last to declare monkeypox an 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 Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist and vice-chancellor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said the WHO and others should do more to stop monkeypox in Africa and elsewhere, but he was not convinced that a global emergency declaration would help.
“There is a misconception that Africa is a poor and defenseless continent, when in fact we know how to deal with epidemics,” said Abdool Karim. He said stopping the outbreak ultimately hinges on things like vigilance, isolating patients and public education.
“Maybe they need vaccines in Europe to stop monkeypox, but here we have been able to control it with very simple measures,” he said.
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