Joe Biden names team to fight fast-spreading monkeypox outbreak

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President Joe Biden has named a new team to lead the US response to monkeypox following California and Illinois declarations of emergency and growing criticism of the administration’s response to the outbreak.

The White House team, named Tuesday, will be led by Robert Fenton, administrator of the Federal Emergency and Management Agency. He will work with state authorities to increase equitable access to tests, vaccines and treatments for the virus, the White House said in a statement.

“This team will allow the Biden administration to further accelerate and strengthen its response to monkeypox,” said Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser.

California and Illinois followed New York on Monday in declaring states of emergency in an effort to bolster vaccination efforts, raise awareness of the growing epidemic and slow the spread of monkeypox infections.

Monkeypox usually causes fever and skin lesions, but usually goes away on its own, without treatment. However, in rare cases it can lead to medical complications and even death, with babies, children and people with underlying immune deficiencies being most at risk.

Government data released Monday shows the United States accounts for about a quarter of the 22,100 reported global infections of the virus which is spread through skin-to-skin contact and is typically found in West and Central Africa.

Last week, the World Health Organization classified the global outbreak of monkeypox as a “public health emergency of international concern”, putting it on par with diseases such as Covid-19, Ebola and poliomyelitis.

Experts say shortages of available vaccines and delays in testing have hampered the US government’s response to the outbreak, a point highlighted by the long lines of people waiting to be vaccinated in San Francisco and in New York these past few days.

Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the US government’s response had been reactive rather than proactive and allowed the virus to take hold in the country.

“The testing was very flawed, just as it was with Covid-19 early on,” he said. “Testing was restricted only to labs affiliated with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), which created a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that made it very difficult for people to get tested.”

Adalja said bureaucracy and red tape had made it difficult to get vaccines to those most at risk of contracting the virus.

Most infections recorded by the WHO are in men who have sex with men. Last week, four prominent LGBT+ organizations in the United States sent a letter to the CDC asking for more action to combat the spread of the virus and change the name of the monkeypox virus to reduce stigma and discrimination.

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