In recent weeks, cases of the viral zoonosis monkeypox have been reported in many countries that are not endemic for the virus. On May 31, an official from the World Health Organization told reporters at CNN that the number of cases had risen to more than 550 and that these cases had been reported in 30 countries.
In a world that has been ravaged by SARS-CoV-2, multiple news headlines about an unfamiliar virus spreading internationally — plus Belgium’s imposition of a 21-day quarantine — raise unsettling memories of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet experts say there is no real threat of a global monkeypox pandemic.
More concerning than the numbers is the media treatment monkeypox has received. According to an article in the Washington Post, a double standard in news coverage has come to the attention of infectious-disease experts across Africa since monkeypox cases began appearing in non-endemic, Western countries. African nations were dealing with monkeypox well before it made the news. The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen at least 1,238 cases and 57 deaths from monkeypox since January. It seems that the world took little notice of the disease until it reached the West.
This attitude towards infectious disease in the Global South is part of a pattern. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic, Western news outlets disproportionately centered on a few “imported” Ebola cases in Europe and the United States. When reporting did shift to the epidemic in West Africa, news reports often focused on foreign medical workers from Western nations. Sensational images of dead bodies in the streets and medical workers in hazmat suits failed to illuminate the underlying health, hygiene, wealth, and political disparities in the region. This way of covering the epidemic fed into the “othering” of Africa and Africans, perpetuating the image of Ebola as an “African disease.” Here again, the crisis was largely ignored until Ebola began to spread to the West.
Other recent examples of underreported health crises include nearly 100 cases and 18 deaths from a rare tick-borne disease in Iraq, and more than 100 cases of bubonic plague in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Media coverage is a proven factor in channeling aid and resources into disease relief. During the Ebola epidemic, Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations at Samaritan’s Purse, stated that the disease’s progress could have been slowed if the West African outbreak had received media attention at an earlier date. The Cameroonian epidemiologist Yap Boum told the Washington Post that increased coverage of monkeypox by Western media outlets could raise awareness of the outbreaks in Africa. Many monkeypox deaths are preventable, so better access to vaccines and treatments would unquestionably save lives. Moreover, news media can provide the public with needed information about basic preventive practices like handwashing and social distancing.
Zoonoses like monkeypox are expected to become more widespread and transmissible in the future. This is due to several factors, all related to climate change. First, as global temperatures continue to rise, many animal species will migrate to new environments and take their viruses with them, potentially infecting new human populations. Second, increased urbanization will create crowding, a condition conducive to rapid and widespread viral transmission. Third, rising temperatures provide a wide range of optimal environments for vector-borne illnesses to infect people.
The effects of these phenomena will be most intensely felt in regions with hot climates and high population density, like tropical Africa and southeast Asia. It is imperative to keep the world informed about public health crises in these regions. To do so could potentially stop an outbreak of dangerous disease, save lives, prevent the next global pandemic, and ultimately prove beneficial to all the world’s people.