World Health Organization's imminent decision on monkeypox classification shows they're concerned about pandemic potential - Michael Baker

The World Health Organization (WHO) deciding whether to classify the monkeypox outbreak as a public health emergency shows "they're more concerned about the pandemic potential of this virus", epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says.

An urgent meeting at WHO has been called for next week to assess the threat.

There are currently more than 1600 confirmed cases of monkeypox and 1500 suspected cases across 39 countries.

"The global outbreak of monkeypox is clearly unusual and concerning," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"The virus is behaving unusually from how it used to behave in the past, but not only that, it's also affecting more and more countries."

Next Thursday, the WHO will assess whether it represents a public health emergency of international concern.

Prof Baker said it would give them more powers to manage it.

"They've done this a few times in recent years, obviously with COVID-19, the last flu pandemic, Ebola, Zika, and polio," he said. "So it's definitely a sign that it's moved up the list in terms of important threats."

But he said that doesn't mean it's necessarily more of a threat to New Zealand, the concern is more for lower and middle income countries.

The WHO is also working with scientists on a new name for the virus and the disease it causes - after calls for one that's non-discriminatory and non-stigmatising.

Prof Baker said while the disease was first found in monkeys in the 1950s, they didn't start it.

"It turned out they're just an incidental host like humans. The reservoir, it will be some small African rodent of some sort and so if anything it should be called maybe rodentpox or even ratpox," he said.

"Rats have an awful history of transmitting infections to humans. I don't think the rat would mind, I mean, its reputation couldn't get any worse than it's already got."

One new name suggested by scientists is hMPXV, but perhaps it's not quite as catchy.