Monkeypox could be renamed to prevent discrimination, the World Health Organisation says, as health leaders plan a meeting to discuss upgrading the status of the virus.
A ‘public health emergency of international concern’ (PHEIC) is the highest level of warning issued by the United Nations agency. That status currently applies only to the COVID-19 pandemic and polio.
There have been 1600 confirmed and 1500 suspected cases of monkeypox this year and 72 deaths, the WHO said. The cases are in 39 countries, including the countries where the virus usually spreads.
Monkeypox is endemic in parts of Africa but there have been more cases both in those countries and the rest of the world.
The virus causes flu-like symptoms and skin lesions, and spreads through close contact.
It is thought to be fatal in about 3 to 6 per cent of cases, according to the WHO, although no deaths have yet been reported in the outbreak outside Africa.
The majority of deaths this year have been in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that it was time to consider stepping up the response because the virus is behaving unusually, more countries are affected and there is a need for international co-ordination.
The committee meeting on Thursday next week will be made up of global experts but the WHO director general makes the ultimate decision on whether the outbreak deserves the PHEIC label
Experts have been pushing the WHO for faster action for several weeks following criticism of the agency’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Alongside COVID-19 and polio, other disease outbreaks have been declared PHEICs, like Ebola in 2014.
A committee can also, however, pull back from raising the alarm.
Health experts would also be considering a new name for the virus.
It comes after more than 30 scientists wrote about the “urgent need for a non-discriminatory and non-stigmatising nomenclature”.
The said naming infectious diseases must be done “in a way that minimises unnecessary negative impacts on nations, geographic regions, economies and people and that considers the evolution and spread of the virus”.
Data showed the majority of cases in Africa were transmitted between human to animals, the scientists wrote. Many of the cases present in areas outside of Africa have been spreading between humans through sharing of bodily fluids.
“In the context of the current global outbreak, continued reference to, and nomenclature of this virus being African is not only inaccurate but is also discriminatory and stigmatising,” they wrote.