The United States government has just declared a public health emergency over the growing monkeypox outbreak. The alert follows a similar declaration by the World Health Organization made last month, as well as ones made by individual states. There have been over 25,000 cases of the viral illness reported worldwide this year—an unprecedented spread for the usually rare illness—including more than 6,000 confirmed in the U.S.
The last national public health emergency concerned the still-ongoing covid-19 pandemic. In the case of monkeypox, the declaration could allow the government to speed up the availability of resources that can curb the spread and harm of the outbreak. Politico first reported news of the expected declaration on Thursday morning, and by the afternoon, officials with Health and Human Services made the announcement in a press briefing.
“This public health emergency will allow us to explore additional strategies to get vaccines and treatments more quickly out to the impacted communities. And it will allow us to get more data from jurisdictions so we can effectively track and attack this outbreak,” said Robert Fenton, a longtime FEMA official who was appointed the White House’s national monkeypox response coordinator this past Tuesday, in the briefing.
For the first time since its discovery in the 1950s, monkeypox is spreading primarily through human-to-human transmission. While the virus could theoretically spread through respiratory droplets, the vast majority of cases appear to be spreading through prolonged close contact during sex. Most but not all sufferers have been gay and bisexual men, and outbreaks have remained concentrated among close-knit sexual networks. Deaths have been rare so far, though about 10% of cases have required hospitalization, usually to manage the excruciating pain the infection can cause.
While it may not be as contagious or likely to cause mass death as covid-19, many experts fear that this global outbreak will lead to the establishment of monkeypox as a routinely occurring human disease. From there, the virus may spread primarily as a sexually transmitted disease, but it is still possible that it could become more transmissible.
The U.S. government has pledged to make over a million doses of the JYNNEOS monkeypox vaccine available to the public by the fall through its national stockpile. But outside experts have criticized the government for failing to secure many more doses early on that it had already purchased from the vaccine’s manufacturer. As a result, many of the over 5 million doses meant for the national stockpile are not expected to arrive till next year. And even through the vaccine is only being recommended for high-risk groups currently, such as gay and bisexual men who have had multiple recent sexual partners, demand for it is still far exceeding supply.