The World Health Organisation has declared the monkeypox outbreak a global emergency — so basically, the health equivalent of a pilot flying a plane and shouting: “Mayday!” into the radio.

It’s the seventh time the WHO has made such a declaration since 2009, when swine flu took the world by storm. Most recently, the agency declared COVID-19 to be a public health emergency of international concern — or PHEIC — in 2020.

So, should we be freaking out?

What is a PHEIC?

Per the WHO, a PHEIC is “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response”.

The declaration suggests the situation is “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected” and requires an international response.

The goal is to ensure the situation receives more attention and resources to prevent it from worsening.

Countries have a legal obligation to quickly respond to a PHEIC.

What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare virus that’s similar to smallpox but is less severe.

According to the Department of Health, it’s mostly found in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests.

The virus was first discovered in 1958 when colonies of monkeys broke out in a pox-like disease (one that produces a pimply, pus-filled rash).

The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There are two main strains of the virus — West African and Central African — and experts reckon the milder subtype from West Africa is the one spreading throughout parts of the world, per the BBC.

What are the symptoms?

Monkeypox can start with a fever, headache, sore muscles, back pain, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion — pretty similar to the flu and other respiratory viruses.

Once the fever breaks, a rash can develop on the face, palms of the hands and soles of the feet, inside of the mouth, genitals and eyes.

According to NSW Health, some people who have contracted monkeypox from the current outbreak have only noticed the rash on their genitals or butt cheeks.

It looks a bit like chickenpox with big ol’ red pimples that fill up with pus, which then crust and fall off.

Like COVID-19, monkeypox has an incubation period. This means you can develop symptoms between five and 21 days after being infected.

How do you catch monkeypox?

It’s all from getting up close and personal with an infected person.

The WHO said transmission occurs through touching the blisters (RIP squeezing your mate’s pimples), sharing bodily fluids and using contaminated items, such as towels.

You can also catch it through respiratory droplets — from sneezing, coughing and the like —  but it’s not super common and usually only happens if there’s been a heap of face-to-face contact.

Why has monkeypox been declared a global emergency?

It looks like the WHO is still trying to understand how monkeypox is spreading around the world, which undoubtedly played a big role in declaring it a PHEIC.

Per The Guardian, WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference that the WHO’s emergency committee met a few days ago to run through the latest data and decide whether monkeypox was of global concern or not.

However, the committee were apparently feeling a bit indecisive and didn’t come to a conclusion. So Dr Ghebreyesus bit the bullet and went ahead and declared it without a consensus — a first for the WHO.

“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,” he said.

“For all of these reasons I have decided that the global monkeypox outbreak represents a global health emergency of international concern.”

Has monkeypox been found in Australia?

Yep, Australia’s first case of monkeypox was reported on 20 May 2022.

As of 23 July 2022, there have been 44 cases of monkeypox in Australia. This includes 24 in New South Wales, 16 in Victoria, 2 in the Australian Capital Territory, 1 in Queensland and 1 in South Australia.

Is there a vaccine on the way?

Vaccines used to protect against smallpox can also be used to prevent monkeypox. The WHO reckons smallpox vaccines are about 85 per cent effective in preventing monkeypox.

The Department of Health said Australia has a smallpox vaccine that protects against monkeypox, which is called ACAM2000.

According to HealthDirect, smallpox vaccines have been stockpiled in Australia — but it’s unclear whether it’s ACAM2000 or another vaccine.

But it’s worth noting the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation reckons the risk-benefit assessment for vaccinating people against monkeypox “is complex”.

They’ve also said ACAM2000 is associated with “rare but serious” adverse effects and it’s not suitable for severely immunocompromised people.

Is there, as they say, discourse surrounding monkeypox?

Unfortunately, yes.

Associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health Gregg Gonsalves told the New York Times it’s possible the first case of transmission “likely” occurred at a “gay rave in Europe”.

And according to the ABC, the WHO’s top monkeypox expert Dr Rosamund Lewis recently said 99 per cent of all monkeypox cases outside of Africa were in men. Of those, 98 per cent were in men who have sex with men.

This means there’s been a lot of disinformation that monkeypox is a sexually transmitted infection which predominantly affects men who have sex with men — for example, from The Associated Press in the US.

This has resulted in stigmatising a community that time and time again, as been used as a scapegoat for health scares.

There’s also the fact that monkeypox has been endemic in parts of Africa for years and the WHO has only seemed to care once it hit Europe.

Per the ABC, Africa has documented more than 1,500 cases since the start of 2022, with 66 fatalities.

“When a disease affects developing countries, it is not an emergency,” acting director of the Institut Pasteur in Bangui, Emmanuel Nakoune, told the ABC.

“It only becomes an emergency when developed countries are affected.”

After all that: should we be freaking out?

Although monkeypox is spreading it’s not highly transmissible from person-to-person.

This doesn’t people shouldn’t be vigilant, professor of infectious disease at the Australian National University Peter Collignon told The Guardian.

“If you look at the numbers, it’s not exploding like a respiratory virus, so this is very different to Covid and contact-tracing is easier. But we will see more numbers and that’s why we need to diagnose the cases quickly.”

If you think you have monkeypox, go to your GP to get tested and isolate until you receive a negative result.

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