RICHMOND, Virginia: Countries that are members of the United Nations are obligated to report cases of unusual diseases that have the potential to become global health threats. In May, more than a dozen countries in Europe, the Americas and other regions of the world that had never before had cases of monkeypox started to report cases occurring within their borders.
In response, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, convened a monkeypox emergency committee to track the evolving situation. At the committee’s first meeting on Jun 23, the members observed that the “multi-country outbreak” might be stabilising as case counts had plateaued in several countries.
However, after thousands more cases of monkeypox were diagnosed in dozens of countries in July, it became clear that the outbreak had not stagnated. On Saturday (Jul 23), Tedros declared monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern.
As a global health expert who specialises in infectious disease epidemiology, I do not think that most people need to be worried about monkeypox. This decision by the WHO, though it may sound ominous, is not a sign of bad things to come. Rather, it is a way to prevent monkeypox from becoming a global crisis.
CRITERIA TO DECLARE PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY
The International Health Regulations are a set of rules that guide how the WHO and United Nations member states respond to emerging health threats.
Under the current regulations, a public health emergency of international concern – often abbreviated as a PHEIC – can be declared by the WHO director-general when three criteria are met: The situation is an “extraordinary event”, there is a risk of spread to other countries, and the situation might “potentially require a coordinated international response”.
Before monkeypox, only five diseases had been designated as PHEICs since the WHO started using the term in 2005: The H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009; polio resurgences in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan in 2014; the Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014 and an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo 2019; the spread of Zika virus in the Americas in 2016; and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.