WHO Declares Monkeypox a Global Health Emergency after 5 Deaths

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Saturday declared the monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency, despite the fact that only five people worldwide have died from the viral disease.

The decision was made by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who announced the declaration Saturday, after a committee of experts was unable to form a consensus on whether or not to label the outbreak with the WHO’s highest level of alert.

“I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern,” Gheybreyesus said during a press conference in Geneva.

Designating a situation a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), while the most urgent action the WHO can take, is largely a move intended to raise public awareness. The high alert level can help raise funding for outbreak prevention, and also gives the WHO the ability to make formal recommendations.

Ghebreyesus’ decision to declare the monkeypox outbreak a PHEIC comes amid a rising, but relatively low, number of cases worldwide. In total, 16,000 people in 75 countries have contracted the viral disease, and five have died from it.

In his remarks, Ghebreyesus acknowledged the low risk the disease currently poses to the average individual.

“Although I’m declaring a public health emergency of international concern, for the moment, this is an outbreak that’s concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners,” the director-general said. “That means that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups.”

“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus,” he added.

The WHO’s announcement marks the seventh time the organization has declared a PHEIC since 2007. The previous declarations include the swine flu pandemic in 2009, the Ebola outbreak from 2013 to 2015, the second Ebola outbreak from 2018 to 2020, the Zika outbreak in 2016, the spread of poliovirus that began in 2014, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, the White House said the announcement was a “call to action for the world community to stop the spread of this virus,” and called for a “coordinated, international response.”