They argue that governments and the World Health Organization should not repeat the early missteps of the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed the discovery of cases, and thus further spread of the virus.
While monkeypox is not as transmissible or dangerous as COVID, these scientists say, clearer guidance on how to self-isolate someone with monkeypox, clearer guidance on ways to protect those at risk, and improved testing and contact tracing is needed.
“If the disease becomes endemic (in other countries), we will face another disturbing disease and many difficult decisions,” said Isabelle Eckerl, a professor at the Geneva Center for Emerging Viral Diseases in Switzerland.
An official told Reuters that the World Health Organization is studying whether the outbreak should be assessed as a potential public health emergency of international concern. The WHO’s determination that the pandemic constitutes a global health emergency – as happened with COVID or Ebola – would accelerate research and funding to contain the disease.
“It’s still being studied, but not yet an emergency committee[on monkeypox],” Mike Ryan, director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the World Health Organization, Geneva agency.
However, according to experts, it is unlikely that the World Health Organization will come to such a conclusion soon, because monkeypox is a known threat that the world has tools to combat. Discussing whether to establish an emergency committee, the body that recommends declaring a health emergency, is simply part of the agency’s routine response, according to WHO officials.
Ms Eckerley asked the World Health Organization to encourage countries to take more coordinated and stricter isolation measures, even without declaring an emergency. She is concerned that saying the virus is benign, along with the availability of vaccines and treatments in some countries, “may lead to lazy behavior by public health authorities.”
Not the same as covered
More than 300 suspected and confirmed cases of monkeypox, a usually mild illness that spreads through close contact, causing flu-like symptoms and a characteristic rash, were reported this month.
Most of them have occurred in Europe rather than in the Central and West African countries where the virus is endemic. No deaths have been reported in the current outbreak.
However, global health officials have expressed concern about the outbreak in non-endemic countries. The World Health Organization said it expects the numbers to rise as surveillance intensifies.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, wrote on Twitter that monkeypox is different from the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, but that we “make some of the same mistakes when it comes to answering conclusively with the tools ranking.”
And the World Health Organization confirmed, on Friday, that the monkeypox virus can be contained through measures that include rapid detection and isolation of cases and tracing of contacts.
Those infected – and in some cases their contacts – are advised to self-isolate for 21 days, but it is unclear how long people will stick to this long period away from work or other commitments. Eckerl said the labs’ ability to test monkeypox has not yet been widely demonstrated, which means a quick diagnosis can be difficult.
Mass vaccination is not necessary, but some countries, including Britain and France, provide vaccines for health care workers and close contacts.
Other experts say the current response is proportional and that declaring monkeypox a global health emergency and declaring a global health emergency would not be appropriate at this point.
“This is for threats with the highest level of risk based on contagion, severity and risk of international escalation,” said Dale Fisher, head of the Global Epidemic Alert and Response Network (GOARN) and professor of medicine in Singapore.
Beyond the labels, experts said the most important lesson of the past two years is that it’s too late to prevent epidemics once they start spreading.
“It is always disappointing that the world wakes up to a new disease only when it strikes high-income countries,” said Piero Oliaro, professor of poverty-related infectious diseases at Oxford University and an expert on monkeypox.
In preparation for epidemics, he added, “you have to do that where the diseases are now.”
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FACTBOX – Countries offering monkeypox vaccine
FACTBOX-Monkey Cases Of Smallpox Around The World
Explanation – How concerned are you about monkeypox?
Explainer – What vaccines and treatments do we have to fight monkeypox?
Explanation – What is on the agenda (and off the agenda) of the WHO Assembly?
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