The US government has declared a public health emergency in response to the spread of monkeypox in a move that will provide federal health agencies with additional funds and powers to combat the virus.
The decision comes amid mounting criticism of the Biden administration’s response to the outbreak, which health experts say has led to delays in testing and shortages of available vaccines.
Government data published on Wednesday show the US accounts for about a quarter of the 25,054 reported global infections of the virus, which spreads via skin-to-skin contact and is usually found in west and central Africa.
In recent months there have been monkeypox outbreaks in countries around the globe where the disease has not typically been found, mostly among men who have sex with men.
“We are prepared to take our response to the next level in addressing this virus and we urge every American to take monkeypox seriously,” US health secretary Xavier Becerra said at a briefing on Thursday.
US officials said the emergency declaration would expand access to testing, treatments and data sharing with states to help track the spread of the disease across the country.
Health officials said they were in talks with pharmaceutical companies to expand access to vaccines and treatments. They were also considering implementing a “dose sharing” approach for the Jynneos vaccine — the only jab available to inoculate against monkeypox — which would enable doctors to administer up to five shots from a single-dose vial.
“It’s important to know that the overall safety and efficacy profile will not be sacrificed with this approach,” said Food and Drug Administration commissioner Robert Califf.
The US has distributed about 600,000 of the 1.1mn Jynneos vaccines in its stockpile to healthcare providers for administration. It has capacity to administer 80,000 tests for monkeypox per week, according to officials.
Last week the World Health Organization classified the worldwide monkeypox outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern”, putting it on par with diseases such as Covid-19, Ebola and polio.
New York, California and Illinois have already issued states of emergency, as long queues of people have gathered outside clinics dispensing monkeypox vaccines.
Monkeypox typically causes fever and skin lesions but usually clears up on its own without treatment. However, in rare cases it can lead to medical complications and even death. Babies, children and people with underlying immune deficiencies most at risk.
Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the US response had been reactive rather than proactive and welcomed the emergency declaration.
“The chief value of the declaration is that it will allow the government to act more nimbly devoid of all the red tape and bureaucracy that has characterised the outbreak response thus far,” he said.