WASHINGTON – The monkeypox outbreak that has infected more than 6,600 people in the United States is a public health emergency, the Biden administration declared Thursday, a move that could make it easier to tap funding and wield the federal bureaucracy to combat the once-rare disease.
The declaration came more than a week after the head of the World Health Organization, on July 23, said the “extraordinary” situation qualifies as a global emergency.
While the disease is being spread primarily among men who have sex with men, former U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told USA TODAY July 21 it’s only a matter of time before the outbreak spreads in the population more broadly.
Adams is among those who had called on the Biden administration to take more aggressive actions for the rapidly evolving situation.
- The disease, a milder cousin of smallpox, was first found in the United States in May. It’s in more than 70 countries.
- Monkeypox is transmitted person-to-person, usually through close contact with respiratory secretions, infected skin lesions or recently contaminated objects, according to the World Health Organization.
- Nearly all cases reported in the U.S. have come through male to male sexual contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Vaccines can be used to prevent monkeypox both before and after exposure but there haven’t been enough available.
- As of July 22, the Biden administration had shipped out 300,000 doses of monkeypox vaccines across the country.
The disease began to spread as the world was still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike COVID-19, monkeypox is not a new disease and it’s not as transmissible. But officials are running into some of the same issues in combatting monkeypox that they faced at the start of the pandemic.
For example, testing for monkeypox was initially difficult in the U.S. as laboratories were not equipped for it.
Identifying cases of monkeypox through testing and then contact-tracing remains key to stopping community spread, according to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Vaccines also are an important strategy, he said when declaring the global emergency.
Testing has been made more widely available and hundreds of thousands of vaccines are being released, according to Ashish Jha, the administration’s COVID-19 response coordinator.
The U.S. has more doses of vaccine than any other country and may have more than all countries combined, Jha said.
Symptoms can begin to appear seven to 14 days after exposure and include fever, muscle aches, exhaustion and a rash that can appear on the body. While it can be fatal in areas with poor medical care, no deaths have been reported in the U.S. outbreak.
What they’re saying
- “We don’t have the capacity we need,” Adams told USA TODAY July 21, “but we’re seeing it gradually start to build up, and experts such as myself are calling on the CDC and the federal government to do more, to increase testing, to increase vaccines and to increase communication about monkeypox.”
- “There is a very substantial ramping up of response that is happening right now,” Jha said July 24.
- “I don’t know why there aren’t more vaccines available,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif, said July 24. “I want to light a fire under the administration and get them to make sure we up production, up distribution, and people that are ready and willing and able to get vaccinated have the ability to protect themselves.”
- “While this outbreak is spreading in a particular social network right now, I think we’ve messaged from the start that there could be cases that occur outside those networks and that we need to be vigilant for it and ready to respond,” said Jennifer McQuiston, the deputy director of the Division of High Consequence Pathogens and Pathology at the CDC.
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Contributing: Rebecca Morin, Elizabeth Weise.