WHO seeks assessment of Zika risks at Olympics

Experts to consider whether Rio Games should go ahead as scheduled amid virus outbreak

WASHINGTON • The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has asked a panel of experts to consider whether the Rio Olympics should be held as scheduled due to concerns that the event could spread the Zika virus.

The WHO has sent teams of senior scientists to Brazil four times "to gather first-hand data on the current situation and assess the level of risk to the large number of athletes and spectators expected to attend the Olympic Summer Games", director-general Margaret Chan wrote in a letter dated June 1.

She was responding to a request by United States senator Jeanne Shaheen to evaluate the public health hazards of holding the Games in August. Ms Shaheen posted Dr Chan's letter online on Friday.

"Given the current level of international concern, I have decided to ask members of the Zika Emergency Committee to examine the risks of holding the Olympic Summer Games as currently scheduled," Dr Chan said. She added that the experts were due to meet soon and vowed to post their advice online immediately.

Ms Shaheen said in a statement after receiving Dr Chan's letter: "The Olympic Games draw athletes and spectators from every corner of the globe and it's important that we understand the global health implications."

Concerns have been mounting as Brazil has been the hardest hit by far since Zika began spreading in South America last year, with nearly 1,300 babies having been born there with irreversible brain damage since then.

Experts say Zika is to blame for a surge in cases in Latin America of microcephaly - a serious birth defect in which babies are born with unusually small heads and brains.

The WHO said yesterday that the emergency committee meeting had already been planned for this month, as it was required to meet within about three months of its last gathering on March 8.

The exact date of the meeting should be published by the end of this week, spokesman Nyka Alexander said in an e-mail.

She pointed out that the experts' job was to "provide public health advice and technical guidance to the government of Brazil and the Rio 2016 Local Organising Committee on the public health risks of hosting a mass gathering such as the Olympics, and the recommended health systems that should be in place to host a safe and healthy event".

"WHO does not decide on whether to hold, cancel or postpone the Games," she said.

The WHO had previously rejected a call from more than 200 international doctors to change the timing or location of the Games, saying shifting the Games would not substantially alter the risks of Zika spreading globally.

But concerns have been mounting as Brazil has been the hardest hit by far since Zika began spreading in South America last year, with nearly 1,300 babies having been born there with irreversible brain damage since then.

The virus, which is mainly spread by two species of the Aedes mosquito but also through sexual contact, has also been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal neurological disorder.  

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'WHO seeks assessment of Zika risks at Olympics'. Print Edition | Subscribe