World Health Organization chief says monkeypox is now a global emergency

Monkeypox "can be contained" in the United States, a top government physician said Sunday, a day after the head of the World Health Organization declared the virus a global health emergency.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, made the comment after Saturday's announcement, an unusual move that comes as nations grapple with a growing number of people sickened by a once-isolated virus.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the announcement Saturday after the U.N. health agency's expert committee couldn't reach a consensus on whether to apply the highest level of alert to the virus.

The U.S. government is considering that status, but isn't there yet.

"We're looking at public health emergency" as something the Health and Human Services Department "might invoke," Jha told CBS News' "Face the Nation." But he added that the administration is weighing its options.

He said testing has been made more widely available, and hundreds of thousands of vaccines would be released in coming weeks. "There is a very substantial ramping up of response that is happening right now," Jha said.

What does a 'global health emergency' mean?

The "global emergency" designation may help spur more investment into combating the disease amid a scramble for scarce vaccines.

Though a global emergency is the organization's highest alert level, it doesn't always mean a disease is highly transmissible or lethal. Similar declarations were made for the Zika virus in 2016 in Latin America and the effort to eradicate polio, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Ghebreyesus made the decision despite a lack of consensus among experts, calling himself “a tiebreaker."

It was the first time a U.N. health agency chief has unilaterally made such a decision without an expert recommendation.

There is "a clear risk of further international spread," Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

"So in short, we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly, through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little," he said. "For all of these reasons, I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern."

But some experts have argued that the disease isn’t severe enough to warrant the attention, in part because most people recover without needing medical attention, although the lesions can be excruciating.

Symptoms of the disease begin to appear seven to 14 days after exposure and include fever, muscle aches, exhaustion and a rash that can appear on the body. So far, monkeypox deaths have been reported only in Africa, where a more dangerous version of the virus is spreading.

A WHO emergency committee decided last month that the outbreak did not at that time represent a public health emergency of international concern, Ghebreyesus said in his statement.

At the time, 3,040 cases had been reported in 47 countries, he said. Since then, the outbreak has ballooned to more than 16,000 reported cases in more than 70 countries.

On Friday, the U.S. reported its first two cases of monkeypox in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

GRAPHIC BREAKDOWN: Rising reports of monkeypox cases in US and around the world raise concern

Monkeypox a growing global concern

The virus has been found in parts of central and west Africa for decades, but monkeypox began to spread more widely in May as authorities reported dozens of outbreaks globally.

As a more dangerous version of the virus spreads mainly in Nigeria and the Congo, the only monkeypox deaths as of now have been reported in Africa, where it spreads mainly to people from infected animals such as rodents. But in Europe, North America and other regions, monkeypox is spreading from human to human without links to animals or travel to Africa.

LGBTQ leaders say more testing kits, vaccines and additional health workers are needed to limit the outbreak, which is primarily striking gay and bisexual men.

Monkeypox does not exclusively spread through sex, but some experts worry it could soon become an entrenched disease similar to gonorrhea, herpes or HIV.

Informing men who have sex with men about the virus without causing stigma remains a balancing act, because the virus can affect anyone who gets in close contact with monkeypox, regardless of their sexuality.

Monkeypox in the US

There were 2,891 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the U.S. as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. States reporting cases have received 370,000 vaccine doses.

The White House promised a robust strategy to combat the virus, including vaccines, testing, treatments and communication with areas where the virus has spread.

Saturday's declaration "is a call to action" for health officials around the world, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement, adding, "We are determined to accelerate our response in the days ahead."

New York has had the most confirmed cases of any state at 900. California, Florida, Georgia and Illinois each have more than 100 cases.

In New York and San Francisco, demand for vaccines has been exceeding the supply providers have available.

In Los Angeles, the Department of Public Health offers vaccine by invitation only to people who have a known exposure or are at high risk of one.

The federal government plans to release more than 1.6 million doses of the monkeypox vaccine Jynneos by the end of the year, but demand is so high that the 56,000 doses released in June have almost all been used.

The vaccine protects against monkeypox but can also be given after exposure to prevent illness, according to the CDC.

Only two U.S. cases have been reported among children, who are described as being in good health and receiving treatment, according to the CDC. How they caught the disease is being investigated, but officials think it was through household transmission.

Older adults who were vaccinated against smallpox as children probably have some protection against monkeypox, said Dr. James Lawler, an infectious disease physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

WHO recommendations

In Saturday's statement, Ghebreyesus stressed that countries like the U.S. experiencing human-to-human spread must try to stop that transmission and protect vulnerable groups.

Identifying cases of monkeypox through testing and then contact-tracing remains key to stopping community spread. Vaccines also are an important strategy, he said.

As with cases of COVID-19, people who have monkeypox should isolate for as long as they're infectious, the statement said.

Vaccines and personal protection equipment are also necessary to help prevent spread among health care workers.

Immunosuppressed people, children and people who are pregnant may be at risk of severe monkeypox disease and should consider vaccines, according to the statement.

Ghebreyesus said anyone experiencing possible symptoms or anyone who was in contact with a monkeypox case should avoid all travel until they determine they can do so without possibly spreading the virus.

Experts respond to global emergency declaration

Though some experts questioned whether the declaration would help, others have pushed for the outbreak to be designated a global emergency, wondering why WHO hadn't made this decision earlier.

Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, said the conditions for declaring monkeypox a global emergency were arguably met weeks ago.

"I think it would be better to be proactive and overreact to the problem instead of waiting to react when it's too late," Head said.

The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, released a statement Saturday saying it commends the decision.

The designation is "critical to rapidly increase testing capacity and vaccine distribution in order to reach communities most impacted by the virus, particularly gay and bisexual men and transgender women, who comprise the majority of current cases,” said Jay Brown, Human Rights Campaign senior vice president of programs, research and training.

Dr. Placide Mbala, a virologist who directs the global health department at Congo's Institute of National Biomedical Research, said efforts to stop monkeypox must be equitable, adding that vaccines should be sent to Africa and be made available to those at highest risk, such as hunters in rural areas.

"Vaccination in the West might help stop the outbreak there, but there will still be cases in Africa," he said. "Unless the problem is solved here, the risk to the rest of the world will remain."

Contributing: Boris Q'va, Janet Loehrke, Sara Moniuszko, George Petras and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WHO chief: Monkeypox now a global emergency