US government declares monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency

The United States has declared a monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Thursday, a move expected to free up additional funding and tools to fight the disease.

The World Health Organization has also declared monkeypox a "public health emergency of international concern" - its highest alert level.

The WHO declaration last month was designed to trigger a coordinated international response and could unlock funding to collaborate on sharing vaccines and treatments. 

The US's announcement comes as Joe Biden's administration faces 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 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 emphasise that the virus can infect anyone.

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

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

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

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the risk to the UK remains the same as before WHO's declaration. A couple of weeks ago, the NHS announced it was stepping up its NHS vaccination programme against monkeypox in London as more supplies of a jab become available.