Monkeypox Spread Spurs Major WHO Alert as CDC Confirms Cases in Children

The worldwide monkeypox scare reached a new milestone on Saturday as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a major alert regarding the disease.

The WHO declared a "public health emergency of international concern" for monkeypox during its second committee meeting focused on the virus. This is the highest alert in the organization's hierarchy of classifications, short of an outbreak being declared a pandemic.

"I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement following the meeting.

For comparison, the WHO declared that COVID-19 was a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020, when a little under 8,000 cases had been reported worldwide. It was later declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Aside from COVID and monkeypox, the only other active emergency alert from WHO pertains to its ongoing efforts to eradicate polio.

monkeypox WHO global emergency
The World Health Organization on Saturday declared monkeypox to be a "public health emergency of international concern." Above, a shot of monkeypox in a lab vial. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Ghebreyesus explained that the WHO committee was unable to reach a consensus on the matter during its most recent meeting, but that he went ahead with the alert after considering the virus' global spread and the factors required for a global health emergency alert.

Despite not meeting some of the criteria for a global emergency, the director-general went ahead with issuing the alert due to the "clear risk of further international spread" and the virus' "new modes of transmission." These factors, he declared, meet "the criteria in the International Health Regulations" for a global health emergency alert.

Ghebreyesus further noted that the risk of monkeypox was considered moderate globally, but high in Europe. On Saturday, he added that while he was opting to declare a global emergency, the virus remains predominantly among gay men. Despite this, WHO said that Pride gatherings have not had an impact on the spread of the virus.

"For the moment this is an outbreak that's concentrated among men who have sex with men, especially those who have multiple partners, that means that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups," he explained.

Over 16,000 cases of monkeypox have now been reported across 75 countries, resulting in five known deaths.

The WHO alert comes as the first cases of the virus were reported in children in the United States on Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While noting that the virus is particularly dangerous for children under eight, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that the two children "are doing well."

"This decision recognizes the potential threat this virus poses to countries around the world and is the WHO's highest level of global alert," CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund wrote in a statement to Newsweek. "CDC is supportive of this decision, as it can serve to galvanize the international community to more quickly and effectively respond to and combat this virus. As part of the Biden Administration's comprehensive strategy to combat the virus CDC will continue to implement a proactive public health response."

Updated 7/26/2022, 5:55 p.m. ET: This article was updated with a statement from the CDC.