Should the WHO Have Declared Monkeypox a Global Health Emergency Sooner?
By Matthew Kwong
A new global scare is going on around by the name of monkeypox. The World Health Organization (WHO) initially faced backlash from some people for its timing in declaring monkeypox a global health emergency. However, before people criticize the WHO, we should decide how serious monkeypox is as a threat to public safety.
Monkeypox originated in 1958 and is endemic to Central and West Africa. The virus usually infects primates and rodents; however, it can sometimes infect humans. Infected humans can experience common symptoms such as fever, rash, swollen lymph nodes, and more. Even though monkeypox originated in Central and West Africa, it spread to the rest of the world due to human travel and animal transport. Monkeypox gets transferred the same way other viruses get transmitted: close contact between infected humans, animals, and non-infected beings. The highest concentration of victims from monkeypox fall in the gay, bisexual, and queer male community because monkeypox mainly spreads through men having sexual intercourse with other men. The WHO declared monkeypox a public health emergency on July 23, 2022, due to the alarming amount of rising cases.
With the declaration of a public health emergency, what are the mortality rates of monkeypox? One would think it would be high, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that with upwards of 45,000 cases globally, there have been only 12 deaths caused by the 2022 outbreak. None of these deaths were in the USA, which holds the most cases of monkeypox at over 16,000 cases. However, even if it’s not as fatal as other public health emergencies, monkeypox is a physically and mentally painful virus that victims must endure for two to four weeks.
The reason the WHO declared monkeypox a global health emergency wasn’t due to a staggering amount of deaths, as was the case with COVID-19, but to minimize the spread because of its potential danger. The declaration of monkeypox as a public health emergency brings awareness to many people that may not have known about the existence of the disease. The more people that know about monkeypox, the better—since most people don’t want to risk contracting the disease, stricter health protocols will minimize victims.
However, even though the WHO’s declaration benefits many people, it still received backlash due to the time it took to do so. Health professionals believe a late declaration puts unnecessary risk on the public. The drawbacks of a late declaration have far-reaching effects, including more deaths and possible evolution of the disease. After the first request to declare monkeypox a public health emergency, virologist Boghuma Titanji stated: “I am very surprised by the decision, it feels again like a missed opportunity to focus much needed attention on the current situation.” Her statement proves correct, as more scientists focus on developing more vaccines or possible treatments for monkeypox.
Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist who advised the committee, also disagreed with WHO’s initial statement. “I think they made a big mistake. They punted” (Travis & Kupferschmidt, 2022). He agrees with Titanji, and we can see now that once WHO declared a public health emergency, it was helpful, but it could have been much more effective if it had been declared sooner.