WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office Ahmed al-Mandhari has repeatedly stated that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
This statement, which he was keen to mention in many press conferences held by the regional office since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, underscores the importance of the fair distribution of vaccines to eliminate the virus.
The World Health Organization may find itself obliged to launch similar appeal to address the unfair distribution of the monkeypox vaccine.
Moves by rich countries to buy large quantities of monkeypox vaccine, while declining to share doses with Africa, could leave millions of people unprotected against a more dangerous version of the disease and risk continued spillovers of the virus into humans, The Associated Press quoted public health officials as warning in a report on Saturday.
Critics fear a repeat of the catastrophic inequity problems seen during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The mistakes we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic are already being repeated,” said Dr. Boghuma Kabisen Titanji, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University.
While rich countries have ordered millions of vaccines to stop monkeypox within their borders, none has announced plans to share doses with Africa, where a more lethal form of monkeypox is spreading than in the West.
To date, there have been more than 22,000 monkeypox cases reported in nearly 80 countries since May, with about 75 suspected deaths in Africa, mostly in Nigeria and Congo.
On Friday, Brazil and Spain reported deaths linked to monkeypox, the first reported outside Africa. Spain reported a second monkeypox death Saturday.
“The African countries dealing with monkeypox outbreaks for decades have been relegated to a footnote in conversations about the global response,” Titanji said.
Scientists say that unlike campaigns to stop COVID-19, mass vaccinations against monkeypox won’t be necessary.
They think targeted use of the available doses, along with other measures, could shut down the expanding epidemics that were recently designated by WHO as a global health emergency.
Yet, while monkeypox is much harder to spread than COVID-19, experts warn if the disease spills over into general populations — currently in Europe and North America it is circulating almost exclusively among gay and bisexual men — the need for vaccines could intensify, especially if the virus becomes entrenched in new regions.
On Thursday, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for the continent to be prioritized for vaccines, saying it was again being left behind.
“If we’re not safe, the rest of the world is not safe,” said Africa CDC’s acting director, Ahmed Ogwell.
Although monkeypox has been endemic in parts of Africa for decades, it mostly jumps into people from infected wild animals and has not typically spread very far beyond the continent.
Experts suspect the monkeypox outbreaks in North America and Europe may have originated in Africa long before the disease started spreading via sex at two raves in Spain and Belgium.
Currently, more than 70% of the world’s monkeypox cases are in Europe, and 98% are in men who have sex with men.
Director of the Department of Universal Health Coverage, Communicable Diseases, at the WHO EMRO Yvan Hutin told Asharq Al-Awsat that the organization is working closely with member states and partners to establish a coordination mechanism to ensure that the largest number of countries have access to the vaccine.
The organization is also working with several member states that have larger vaccine reserves to make some of their supplies more accessible to countries that do lack tis access.
He stressed that assessing what is available and how these vaccines can be used to achieve the optimal impact will take some time.
Meanwhile, he underlined the need to make every effort to control the spread of monkeypox among people through early case detection, diagnosis, isolation and contact tracing.
Hutin further affirmed that information is a powerful tool, which enables the most vulnerable to protect themselves and others.
Some countries have recently approved a monkeypox vaccine, but its supply is still limited, while others have the old smallpox vaccine, which can be used to treat the virus.
He pointed out that once the vaccines are available, WHO recommends targeted vaccination for those who have been exposed to people diagnosed with monkeypox.
It also urges vaccinating people with high risk of exposure, including health workers, some laboratory workers, and those with multiple sexual partners.
He ruled the need for the mass vaccination against monkeypox.
He affirmed that being vaccinated not provide immediate protection against infection or disease, noting that the process can take several weeks.
This indicates that those who have been vaccinated should continue to take preventive measures, such as avoiding close contact, including having sex with others, or with those at risk of contracting the virus.