WHO: Monkeypox declared 'international emergency,' but no reason to panic

WHO: Monkeypox declared 'international emergency,' but no reason to panic
Credit: Belga

The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared the monkeypox outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern" this weekend, but experts are stressing that there is no need to panic.

It is only the seventh time that the WHO has declared this highest form of alert, giving the monkeypox spread the same classification as Covid-19, polio and the 2009 flu pandemic.

"There is also a clear risk of further international spread, although the risk of interference with international traffic remains low for the moment," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a press conference on Saturday.

"In short, we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly, through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little and which meets the criteria in the International Health Regulations," he said. "For all these reasons, I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern."

'No reason to panic'

Since the beginning of May, over 16,000 cases have been confirmed, reported by at least 75 countries, according to the WHO. The vast majority of infections are found in Europe. In Belgium, 311 cases were confirmed up to Friday 22 July, according to the latest data by Sciensano, Belgium's national health institute.

"The world should take this outbreak of monkeypox seriously, but not dramatise it either," said Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst on Twitter.

Still, "there is no reason to panic," he stressed, adding that while this highest level of warning makes it seem like monkeypox are a danger to the general population, this is not the case.

"It is primarily a way of making sure governments are paying attention. It also makes it easier to mobilise resources and set up international cooperation for research and the production of vaccines and medicines."

Virologist Steven Van Gucht, meanwhile, stressed that even though the number of cases has risen reasonably fast, this situation is absolutely not comparable to Covid-19.

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"The WHO is acting on the principle of caution," he told De Morgen. "The virus gives mild symptoms and circulates in a limited population, but it is now spreading rapidly and it is still a virus, so it can mutate. Now, there is still a chance to get rid of it with prevention, contact tracing, isolation and vaccination for those who are at risk."

Van Ranst and Van Gucht both stressed that the timing is particularly bad because many people wrongly project Covid-19 onto this virus. Importantly, monkeypox is a DNA virus, while Sars-Cov-2 is an RNA virus: the first type is a lot more stable and mutates less often than an RNA virus.

It is also not as easy to catch as an RNA virus, explained vaccinologist Pierre Van Damme of the University of Antwerp (UAntwerpen). "It is not a sexually transmitted disease, but you do need long and close skin contact with someone to become infected."

In most cases, the virus causes fever, headaches and muscle aches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and a rash with blisters on the skin. While there is no treatment, the symptoms are usually mild and disappear after two to four weeks.

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