After Covid-19, Ebola, Zika virus and polio, will WHO declare monkeypox as international health emergency? Decision today

The case count from the current monkeypox outbreak outside of Africa has topped 3,000 in more than 40 countries, as per a Reuters tally.

New Delhi: As the number of monkeypox cases increases in several countries, World Health Organization (WHO) experts will meet on Thursday (June 23, 2022) to evaluate whether the recent outbreak constitutes an international emergency, its highest form of an alert. The case count from the current monkeypox outbreak outside of Africa has topped 3,000 in more than 40 countries, as per a Reuters tally – largely among men who have sex with men – since it was first reported in May. There, however, have been no reports of deaths.

The viral disease, that causes flu-like symptoms and skin lesions, is endemic in parts of Africa and the continent has registered just over 1,500 suspected cases since the start of 2022, of which 66 have been fatal. 

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With a sudden and unusual event spreading internationally, most health experts agree monkeypox technically meets the criteria for the WHO definition of an emergency.

It is notable that only six such emergencies have previously been declared – Covid-19 (2020), the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2019), Zika virus (2016), polio (2014), West Africa`s Ebola outbreak (2014), and the H1 virus that caused an influenza pandemic (2009).

Other outbreaks, such as yellow fever in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2016, were assessed by the WHO`s committee but ultimately did not meet the criteria: an unusual event spreading internationally which needs cross-country co-operation.

The declaration largely serves to draw attention and does not officially unlock funding or new measures, although it can lend more weight to WHO`s advice and the actions taken by countries.

An expert committee makes the recommendation, but the ultimate decision lies with the WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Here are details of WHO’s Health emergencies, its highest form of alert


Recent estimates from WHO suggest that around 15 million people may have died as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was declared an emergency by the UN body in January 2020, about a month after the first reports of a novel coronavirus from Wuhan, China.

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The WHO`s emergency committee on Ebola declared the outbreak an international emergency in July 2019, after authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo had already spent a year fighting the disease in an active conflict zone. There were said to be 3,481 cases and 2,229 deaths.


In 2016, the global health body declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern. The virus had reportedly spread to more than 60 countries and territories since the outbreak was identified in Brazil in 2015. Subsequently, by November 2016, when the WHO declared an end to the emergency, there had been some 2,300 confirmed cases worldwide of babies born with microcephaly, most in Brazil. Microcephaly is a condition caused by the virus and marked by abnormally small heads that can lead to developmental problems.


The WHO declared the resurgence of polio to be a public health emergency of international concern in 2014, and the label still applies to the disease that can paralyse and kill children.


An Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia between 2013 and 2016 killed at least 11,300 people, more than all other known Ebola outbreaks combined. The spread of the haemorrhagic fever also reportedly cost the economies of those three countries an estimated $53 billion.


The swine flu pandemic of 2009 killed an estimated 2,84,500 people, about 15 times the number confirmed by laboratory tests at the time. A 2012 study in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal said the toll might have been as high as 5,79,000 people. The original count, compiled by the WHO, put the number at 18,500.

What is monkeypox virus?

Monkeypox is a rare viral infection similar to human smallpox. It was first discovered in 1958 in monkeys kept for research and the first human case of monkeypox was reported in 1970. The disease occurs primarily in tropical rainforest areas of Central and West Africa.

The virus belongs to the family Poxviridae, which also includes the viruses causing smallpox and cowpox disease. 

What are symptoms of monkeypox disease?

Monkeypox typically presents itself with fever, rash, and swollen lymph nodes and may lead to a range of medical complications. The disease is usually self-limiting with the symptoms lasting from two to four weeks. Severe cases can also occur. In recent times, the case fatality ratio has reportedly been around 3-6 per cent but can be up to 10 per cent. There are no reported deaths in this current spread.

How does monkeypox virus spread?

Monkeypox is transmitted to humans through close contact with an infected person or animal, or with material contaminated with the virus. It reportedly is spread by rodents such as rats, mice, and squirrels.

The monkeypox disease is transmitted through lesions, body fluids, respiratory droplets, and contaminated materials such as bedding.

The virus, however, is said to be less contagious than smallpox and causes less severe illness.

How are monkeypox cases treated?

Vaccines used during the smallpox eradication program also provided protection against monkeypox. Newer vaccines have been developed of which one has been approved for the prevention of the disease. An antiviral agent developed for the treatment of smallpox has also been licensed for the treatment of monkeypox, according to WHO.

(With agency inputs)

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