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As Monkeypox Spreads, U.S. Declares a Health Emergency

President Biden’s health secretary Thursday declared the growing monkeypox outbreak a national health emergency, a rare indication that the virus now poses a significant risk to Americans and is initiating measures to contain the threat.

The statement comes more than a week after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency during the outbreak, and it is empowers federal agencies to spend money on the development and evaluation of vaccines and drugs, to access emergency funding and to hire additional workers to help contain the outbreak that began in May.

“We are ready to take our response to the next level in tackling this virus, and we urge every American to take monkey pox seriously,” Health Secretary Xavier Becerra said at a news conference.

The president and Mr. Becerra are under intense pressure from activists and public health experts to act more aggressively to fight the outbreak. Earlier this week, Mr. Biden appointed an experienced emergency response officer and a respected infectious disease specialist to coordinate the White House response — a sign that the administration is stepping up its efforts.

Supplies of the monkeypox vaccine, called Jynneos, have been severely limited and the administration has been criticized for moving too slowly to expand doses. Declaring the emergency wouldn’t reduce that shortage, but the administration can take steps to speed up access to tecovirimat, the drug recommended for treating the disease.

By Wednesday, the United States had registered nearly 7,000 cases of monkey pox, with the… highest rates per capita in Washington, New York and Georgia. More than 99 percent of cases involve men who have sex with men.

The virus is usually transmitted during close physical contact; the infection is rarely fatal — no deaths have been reported in the United States — but can be very painful. The country now has one of the highest rates of monkeypox infections in the world, and the numbers are expected to rise as surveillance and testing improves.

Declaring monkeypox an emergency sends “a strong signal that this is important, that it must be addressed now,” said Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a member of the WHO advisory panel on monkeypox.

dr. Rimoin is one of the scientific advisers who have urged WHO to categorize monkeypox as a “public health emergency of international concern,” a designation the organization has used just seven times since 2007.

While panelists were divided on the issue, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, the advisers to declare monkeypox a global emergency, a status currently occupied by only two other diseases, Covid-19 and polio.

In the United States, the demand for stronger action against monkey pox has increased. Recently, Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, appealed to the Biden government increase the production and distribution of vaccines and develop a long-term strategy to fight the virus.

Washington State Democrat Senator Patty Murray, who heads the health commission, pushed the Department of Health and Human Services to provide a detailed overview of the steps it is taking to contain the outbreak.

AIDS activists, who have been sharply critical of the government, have been demanding an emergency declaration for weeks. “This is all too late,” said James Krellenstein, a founder of PrEP4All, an advocacy group. “I don’t really understand why they didn’t do this weeks ago.”

Lawrence O. Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health at Georgetown University, described an emergency statement as “a critical turning point in monkeypox response, after a lackluster start.”

The decision to declare an emergency is likely to be politically unpopular, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease physician at Emory University in Atlanta. He noted that many in Congress had urged the administration to lift the public health emergency for Covid-19.

Still, “I think it’s far too late for the US to declare the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency,” he said.

The emergency indication would FDA to authorize measures that can diagnose, prevent, or treat monkeypox, without having to go through the usual extensive agency review. The agency relied heavily on this provision to accelerate testing, vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus.

Declaring an emergency also gives the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention greater access to information from health care providers and from states. In general, federal agencies such as the CDC cannot force states to share data on cases or vaccinations.

During the outbreak, federal health officials regularly shared information on testing capacity or on the number of vaccines shipped to states. But the CDC’s data on the number of cases lags behind that of the local public health departments, and the number of people vaccinated, or their demographic information, is usually unavailable.

“We’re again really challenged by the fact that at the agency we don’t have the authority to receive that data,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, at an event recently hosted by The Washington Post.

The agency is working on wider access to state data, but in the meantime, the information is shoddy and unreliable. Local health departments are underfunded, understaffed and exhausted after more than two years of struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Declaring this monkeypox outbreak as a public health emergency is important, but more important is to step up the level of federal and state coordination, fill our gaps in vaccine supply and receive money from Congress.” to address this crisis,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health and a WHO adviser on monkey pox.

“Otherwise, we’re talking about a new endemic virus that has rooted in this country.”

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