The United States has declared monkeypox a public health emergency, the health secretary said on Thursday, a move expected to free up additional funding and tools to fight the disease.
“We’re prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus, and we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a briefing.
The declaration will improve the availability of data on monkeypox infections that is needed for the response, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky said, speaking alongside Bacerra.
The U.S. government has come under pressure for its handling of the outbreak.
The disease began spreading in Europe before moving to the United States, which now has the most cases in the world with more than 6,600. Vaccines and treatments have been in short supply and the disease often left for historically underfunded sexual health clinics to manage.
The World Health Organization has also declared monkeypox a “public health emergency of international concern,” its highest alert level. The WHO’s declaration in late July was designed to trigger a co-ordinated international response and could unlock funding to collaborate on sharing vaccines and treatments.
Governments are deploying vaccines and treatments that were first approved for smallpox but also work for monkeypox.
The U.S. government has distributed 600,000 doses of Bavarian Nordic’s Jynneos vaccine and deployed 14,000 of Siga Technologies’ TPOXX treatment, officials said, though they did not disclose how many have been administered.
Walensky said the government aims to vaccinate more than 1.6 million high-risk individuals.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Robert Califf said the agency was considering freeing up more Jynneos vaccine doses by allowing doctors to draw five doses of vaccine from each vial instead of the current one dose by using a different subcutaneous method of inoculation.
U.S. President Joe Biden this month appointed two federal officials to co-ordinate his administration’s response to monkeypox, following declarations of emergencies by California, Illinois and New York.
First identified in monkeys in 1958, the disease has mild symptoms including fever, aches and pus-filled skin lesions. People tend to recover from it within two to four weeks, the WHO says. It spreads through close physical contact and is rarely fatal.
The vast majority of the cases in the U.S. are among men who have sex with men.
However, it’s long been clear anyone can become infected with monkeypox through multiple forms of close contact, including skin-to-skin contact such as touching or sex, respiratory droplets in a conversation, or even being exposed to contaminated clothes or bedding.
Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, told Reuters on Thursday that it was critical to engage leaders from the gay community as part of efforts to rein in the outbreak, but cautioned against stigmatizing the community.
“Engagement of the community has always proven to be successful,” Fauci said.