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As cases climb, US declares monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency

Move paves way for more decisive action against virus, amid criticism of Biden administration over lack of access to vaccines

Jonathan Parducho, a pharmacist, removes a tray of vials of of the Jynneos vaccine for monkeypox from a box containing 20 doses, in the vaccine hub at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, July 29, 2022. (Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)
Jonathan Parducho, a pharmacist, removes a tray of vials of of the Jynneos vaccine for monkeypox from a box containing 20 doses, in the vaccine hub at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, July 29, 2022. (Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

The United States on Thursday declared monkeypox a public health emergency, a move that should free up funds, assist in data gathering and deploy additional personnel in the fight against 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 and to take responsibility to help us tackle this virus,” said Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra in a call.

The announcement will free up federal money and other resources to fight the virus, which may cause fever, body aches, chills, fatigue, and pimple-like bumps on many parts of the body.

The declaration comes as the Biden administration has faced criticism over monkeypox vaccine availability. Clinics in major cities such as New York and San Francisco say they haven’t received enough of the two-shot vaccine to meet demand, and some have had to stop offering the second dose to ensure the supply of first doses.

The White House said it has made more than 1.1 million doses available and has helped to boost domestic diagnostic capacity to 80,000 tests per week.

The monkeypox virus spreads through prolonged and close skin-to-skin contact, including hugging, cuddling and kissing, as well as sharing bedding, towels, and clothing. The people who have gotten sick so far have been primarily men who have sex with men. But health officials emphasize that the virus can infect anyone.

A patient, who has recovered from monkeypox, shows a photo of a rash on his skin during an interview in New York on July 19, 2022. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP)

The announcement comes three days after the Biden administration named top officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to serve as the White House coordinators to combat the monkeypox outbreak.

Such a declaration is an important — and overdue — step, said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University.

“It signals the US government’s seriousness and purpose, and sounds a global alarm,” he said.

Under a declaration by the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency can draw from emergency funds, hire or reassign staff to deal with the outbreak, and take other steps to control the virus.

A public health emergency can be extended, similar to what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gostin said the US government has been too cautious and should have declared a nationwide emergency earlier. Public health measures to control outbreaks have increasingly faced legal challenges in recent years, but Gostin didn’t expect that to happen with monkeypox.

People wait in line to receive the monkeypox vaccine in Brooklyn on July 17, 2022, in New York City. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

“It is a textbook case of a public health emergency,” Gostin said. “It’s not a red or a blue state issue. There is no political opposition to fighting monkeypox.”

The government’s decision comes after others have made similar declarations.

Last week, the World Health Organization called monkeypox a public health emergency, with cases in more than 70 countries. A global emergency is the WHO’s highest level of alert, but the designation does not necessarily mean a disease is particularly transmissible or lethal.

California, Illinois and New York have all made declarations in the last week, as have New York City, San Francisco and San Diego County.

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