As monkeypox infection rates continue to increase across the globe, the outbreak has been elevated to a public health emergency.
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced the classification during a press conference on Saturday, a month after the International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee convened and determined the outbreak was not a public health crisis.
"In short, we have an outbreak that has spread around the world rapidly, through new modes of transmission, about which we understand too little, and which meets the criteria in the International Health Regulations," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
"For all of these reasons, I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern," he added.
Courtesy of CDC/Getty Images Monkeypox lesions
When the IHR Emergency Committee first convened, 3,040 cases of monkeypox from 47 countries had been reported to the WHO. That number has since grown to more than 16,000 cases from 75 countries and territories, including five deaths.
As the committee then gathered this week, the group was initially unable to reach a consensus on whether the outbreak represented a public health emergency.
But after considering the IHR's five elements for classifying an outbreak as a public health emergency, the WHO determined that the risk of monkeypox is "moderate globally and in all regions," except in Europe where the risk is high. And although there is a risk of further international spread, it's unlikely to affect international traffic.
The WHO is now organizing a "coordinated response to stop transmission and protect vulnerable groups."
Cynthia S. Goldsmith, Russell Regner/CDC via AP Monkeypox virions
Although monkeypox is not limited to one group of people, Dr. Ghebreyesus acknowledged that the virus is concentrated among "men who have sex with men, especially those with multiple sexual partners," urging countries to work closely with those communities to stop the spread.
"Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus," he added.
Dr. Ghebreyesus concluded: "But with the tools we have right now, we can stop transmission and bring this outbreak under control."
After multiple cases of monkeypox began popping up around the world, the first U.S. cases were reported in Massachusetts back in May. The U.S. last saw an outbreak of 47 monkeypox cases in 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The first cases of monkeypox were identified in 1958 in colonies of monkeys, hence the name. The first human case of the virus occurred in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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Monkeypox symptoms are often mild, with the first signs including fever, headache, muscle aches, chills and exhaustion, following a seven to 14-day incubation period. After about one to three days, infected people will experience a rash, typically on the face, before it spreads to other parts of the body. The rash eventually turns to fluid-filled blisters that scab over in about two to three weeks.
The virus can spread through direct contact with body fluids or the popped blisters. The main form of transmission is through respiratory droplets, but it would require prolonged contact with an infected person.
Although there is no exact treatment for monkeypox, the virus typically clears up on its own. However, a dose of the smallpox vaccine has been known to improve symptoms if administered shortly after infection.