GENEVA — The World Health Organization’s top official in Europe on Wednesday called for urgent action by authorities and civic groups to control fast-rising cases of monkeypox that he said posed a real risk to public health.
Europe has emerged as the epicenter of an outbreak of monkeypox, with more than 1,500 cases identified in 25 European countries, which account for 85% of global cases, Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO’s director of its European region, said.
The WHO will convene its emergency committee in Geneva next week, Kluge added, to determine if the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, a formal declaration that calls for a coordinated response between countries.
“The magnitude of this outbreak poses a real risk,” Kluge said. “The longer the virus circulates, the more it will extend its reach, and the stronger the disease’s foothold will get in nonendemic countries.”
Monkeypox is a viral infection endemic in West Africa that has now spread to 39 countries, including 32 that have no previous experience of it, the WHO director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said Tuesday.
Infections mostly result from close physical contact and mainly affect men who have sex with men, but it can also spread through respiratory droplets in prolonged face-to-face contact, Andrea Ammon, director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, said Wednesday. Monkeypox cases have also been found among close family members, but the risks of transmission among the general population, Ammon said, were “rather low.”
Monkeypox is not attached to any single social group, Kluge said, cautioning that stigmatizing the virus as a gay disease would undermine efforts to develop an effective public health response.
The WHO has recorded 27 deaths from the disease in Africa this year but none in Europe. Infections are mostly mild and do not require hospitalization.
Kluge called for urgent action by European countries to scale up surveillance, diagnostic testing and genetic sequencing, and tracing the contacts and sexual partners of infected people. The WHO has released emergency funds to bolster laboratory capacity for identifying the monkeypox virus in countries that lacked it, he said.