Very low risk of further Zika spread due to Olympics: WHO

Brazilian mother Jaqueline Jessica Silva de Oliveira taking a selfie with her family in April. She recently gave birth to twins, and one of them has microcephaly, a birth defect associated with Zika.
Brazilian mother Jaqueline Jessica Silva de Oliveira taking a selfie with her family in April. She recently gave birth to twins, and one of them has microcephaly, a birth defect associated with Zika.PHOTO: REUTERS

No need to curb travel to places with outbreaks of virus, it says

GENEVA/CHICAGO • There is a "very low risk" of further international spread of the Zika virus as a result of the Olympic Games to be held in Brazil, the heart of the current outbreak linked to birth defects, say experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Its emergency committee on Zika has reaffirmed its previous advice that there should be "no general restrictions on travel and trade with countries, areas and/or territories" with Zika transmission, including cities in Brazil hosting the Olympics that start on Aug 5 and the Paralympic Games in September.

The independent experts gather every three months to assess the Zika outbreak. Tuesday's meeting - their third such meeting - came amid intensifying concern over the staging of the Olympics in Brazil, the country hardest hit by the virus.

"The risks are no different for people going to the Olympics than for other areas where there are outbreaks of Zika," Dr David Heymann, chair of the expert panel, told reporters at WHO's headquarters in Geneva after the meeting.

The Brazilian authorities have confirmed more than 1,400 cases of microcephaly in babies whose mothers were exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy.

Microcephaly is a birth defect marked by small head size that can cause severe developmental problems in babies. The virus has also been linked to Guillain-Barre, a neurological disorder in adults.

International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach said the WHO's conclusion was "very positive" for the Rio Games.

The latest meeting was touched off by a letter drafted by Dr Amir Attaran, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa, and signed by a group of more than 200 bioethicists, lawyers and health experts urging WHO to move or postpone the Rio Games because of the risk that they could amplify the spread of Zika.

Dr Attaran had been invited to take part in WHO's emergency committee meeting, but he declined to sign the organisation's required confidentiality agreement, and was not permitted to take part.

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said Dr Attaran's letter was part of the background material the emergency committee considered in its deliberations.

In a document distributed by Dr Attaran and his colleagues on Tuesday, the group urged WHO to recommend that individuals postpone all non-essential travel to Zika-affected areas, which would include the cities in Brazil hosting the Games.

The experts declined, finding "no reason to decrease travel to these areas", Dr Heymann said.

He added: "The risk of international spread is not a significant concern."

Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO's director of emergencies, said 20 per cent of the world's population live in Zika-affected areas while almost 30 per cent of international travel is into and out of such areas.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2016, with the headline 'Very low risk of further Zika spread due to Olympics: WHO'. Print Edition | Subscribe