World Health Organization deciding whether to declare public emergency for monkeypox

The World Health Organization (WHO) is deciding whether to put monkeypox on its highest level of alert. 

An emergency committee has convened to discuss whether to declare the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

"It's slowly spreading but it is spreading, and it's quite rightly that the WHO is concerned that it needs to be contained," said Arindam Basu, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Canterbury.

The virus has now spread to 42 countries, with the UK having the most cases followed by Spain, Germany, Portugal and Canada.

Australia has at least seven confirmed cases and so far none have arrived in New Zealand.  

Labelling monkeypox a public health emergency of international concern would give it the same designation as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Basu said monkeypox was nowhere near as transmissible as COVID-19.

"It's going to be much more self-contained, a few people will be infected [and] the spread will not be as wide at all."

Monkeypox is spread through close contact. So far the outbreak has primarily affected gay and bisexual men but anyone can get it.]

"I think an important point that has been made is that it's not who you are, it's what you do that makes you at risk," said Jimmy Whitworth, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Populations have become more susceptible to monkeypox as a result of the termination of routine smallpox vaccination, which offered some cross-protection in the past.  

Basu said there's no need to be overly worried.

"We have to be watchful of it but there is absolutely no need to press the panic button."

He said New Zealand is well-positioned to control it, if and when it arrives here.