By Jennifer Rigby and Mrinalika Roy

LONDON (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) will convene an emergency committee on Thursday next week to assess whether the monkeypox outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern.

This is the highest level of alert issued by the United Nations (UN) agency, which currently only applies to the Covid-19 pandemic and polio.

There have been 1,600 confirmed and 1,500 suspected cases of monkeypox this year and 72 deaths, the WHO said, in 39 countries, including countries where the virus is commonly spread.

Monkeypox is endemic in parts of Africa, but there have been more cases in those countries and the rest of the world. The virus causes flu-like symptoms and skin lesions, and is spread through close contact.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was time to consider stepping up the response because the virus is behaving unusually, more countries are affected and there is a need for international coordination.

“We don’t want to wait until the situation is out of control,” said WHO emergency director for Africa, Ibrahima Socé Fall.

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