Monkeypox is now a national public health emergency in the U.S. – an epidemiologist explains what this means

After news broke that the U.S. declared monkeypox to be a public health emergency, friends and family started asking me, an infectious disease epidemiologist, if monkeypox is about to begin causing widespread death and chaos. I assured them that the Aug. 4, 2022, public health emergency declaration is about government resource allocation. Similar to the World Health Organization’s declaration of monkeypox as a public health emergency of international concern, the U.S. declaration isn’t calling for individuals who are not in a high-risk group to change anything about their lives.

There have not yet been any monkeypox deaths in the U.S., but more than 7,000 cases have been diagnosed thus far, and the spread of the virus to nearly every state is concerning. While most cases are still occurring among men who have sex with men, the virus is transmitted through nonsexual skin-to-skin contact, so there is a risk of people in other population groups contracting the infection. The federal declaration is intended to help slow the spread of the virus among men who have sex with men and stop it from spreading to new communities.

What is a public health emergency?

Presidents and state governors have the authority to declare states of emergency when there is a potentially life-threatening situation and the resources routinely allocated to the responding agencies are insufficient for dealing with the situation.

In late July, 2022, for example, the governor of Kentucky declared a state of emergency following devastating flooding in the eastern part of the state. The governor requested and received federal assistance to help respond to the floods. The declaration didn’t mean that more flooding was expected. It just made extra resources available for rescuing stranded individuals and providing essential services, like shelter and drinking water, to displaced people.

Similarly, the monkeypox emergency declaration doesn’t mean that the government expects millions more cases in the next month. It is about helping health agencies get the vaccines and other tools they need to slow the spread of the virus.

Does the public health emergency call for public action?

No. The main thing the emergency declaration does is enable the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to get more of the funding and other resources that it needs to protect the public from a more widespread monkeypox outbreak. At this point, monkeypox is an emergency for the U.S. government’s public health agencies to deal with. It is not an emergency for the public right now. The goal of the emergency declaration is to prevent monkeypox from becoming a more widespread threat to public health.

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