(CN) — Five days after declaring monkeypox an international health emergency, the head of the World Health Organization on Wednesday urged men who have sex with other men to reduce their number of sexual partners to help control the outbreak.
On Saturday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, classified the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, the United Nations health agency's highest alert level.
Since early May, the global number of monkeypox cases has grown and spread beyond West and Central Africa where the virus is endemic.
Nearly 19,000 cases have been reported in 78 countries, with more than 70% of those confirmed cases found in Europe and 25% in the Americas. Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France have reported the most cases, according to Our World in Data.
Since the outbreak started, five deaths caused by monkeypox have been reported and about 10% of infections lead to hospitalization, the WHO said.
Gay and bisexual men account for 98% of monkeypox cases globally, but anyone exposed to the virus is at risk of infection, according to WHO. The majority of infections have been found among men with multiple partners.
The virus is transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact but it can spread, for example, on contaminated towels or bedding. Children, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are considered among the most vulnerable.
“This is an outbreak that can be stopped, if countries, communities and individuals inform themselves, take the risks seriously, and take the steps needed to stop transmission and protect vulnerable groups,” Tedros said at a news conference at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. “For men who have sex with men, this includes, for the moment, reducing your number of sexual partners, reconsidering sex with new partners, and exchanging contact details with any new partners to enable follow-up if needed.”
He said countries must be “engaging and empowering communities of men who have sex with men to reduce the risk of infection and onward transmission.”
Tedros warned that “stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus, and can fuel the outbreak” and he urged social media companies to combat “misinformation and disinformation” about the disease.
There are fears the virus may evolve and begin infecting a greater number of people.
“The longer the virus continues to circulate, the more opportunity it does have to continue to modify or to mutate,” said Rosamund Lewis, the WHO's technical lead on the monkeypox outbreak. “It is critically important to slow down this spread.”
The U.N. health agency is recommending that those most exposed to monkeypox – including health workers, some laboratory workers and people with multiple sexual partners – should be vaccinated.
One smallpox vaccine, called MVA-BN, has been approved in Canada, the European Union and the U.S. for use against monkeypox. Two other vaccines are being considered. There are about 16 million doses of MVA-BN available globally.
But Tedros said the effectiveness of vaccines against monkeypox remains uncertain due to a lack of data and that it can take several weeks for a vaccine to provide protection.
The monkeypox virus is an orthopoxvirus that causes a disease with symptoms similar, but less severe, to smallpox. It can cause fever, swollen lymph nodes and rashes on the face, palms, the soles of feet and genitalia.
Smallpox was eradicated in 1980, but monkeypox continues to occur in countries of Central and West Africa. The first monkeypox case was discovered in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Monkeypox is transmitted from animals to humans with most cases found close to tropical rain forests where there are animals that carry the virus. Human-to-human transmission is limited.
In declaring monkeypox a global health emergency, Tedros took an unprecedented step by overruling a split expert emergency committee convened to assess the risk of the outbreak. In June, the expert committee declined to call the outbreak an international emergency.
Besides monkeypox, polio and Covid-19 are two other diseases currently classified as international health emergencies. The term pandemic is not an official WHO classification, but the agency declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020 to ring the “alarm bell loud and clear,” as Tedros said at the time.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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