Zika fears: WHO rejects call to shift Olympics

A mosquito control inspector checking for larvae in a drainage ditch in Miami, Florida. There have been 158 reported cases of Zika in the US state. All the patients are believed to have caught the virus while travelling outside the US.
A mosquito control inspector checking for larvae in a drainage ditch in Miami, Florida. There have been 158 reported cases of Zika in the US state. All the patients are believed to have caught the virus while travelling outside the US.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Experts warn that Games in Rio could spread virus worldwide

GENEVA • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has ruled out any change in the timing or location of the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, rejecting a call by doctors and scientists to shift the event because of the Zika virus.

An open letter to the WHO signed by 150 international doctors, scientists and researchers on Friday called for the August Games to be moved or delayed to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Holding the Games in Rio, the second worst-affected city in Brazil, would be "irresponsible" and "unethical" and could risk spreading the virus to "poor, as-yet-unaffected places" such as Africa and South Asia, the letter warned.

Zika, which can cause birth defects, can be introduced to a region when a local mosquito picks it up from an infected human. If it lives long enough, the mosquito then infects people from whom it takes blood, starting a vicious circle.

But the WHO said: "Based on current assessment, cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of the Zika virus."

Top golfer Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland has said that he might skip playing at the Olympics because of the virus, the BBC reported last week. Golfers Vijay Singh of Fiji and Australian Marc Leishman have already pulled out for that reason, it said.

Nearly 1,300 babies have been born in Brazil with irreversible brain damage since Zika began to spread there last year. The virus can also cause adult-onset neurological problems such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis and death.

"An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain and return home to places where it can become endemic," experts from the United States, Britain, Canada, Norway, the Philippines, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and Lebanon, among others, said in the letter.

"Should that happen to poor, as-yet-unaffected places (for example, most of South Asia and Africa) the suffering can be great."

The WHO and top US public health officials have called on those travelling to Brazil to take precautions against mosquito bites, and have said pregnant women should avoid areas where Zika is circulating, including Rio.

The Olympics and Paralympics, to be held from Aug 5 to Sept 18, will take place during Brazil's winter "when there are fewer active mosquitoes and the risk of being bitten is lower", the WHO said this month.

The top US public health official, Mr Tom Frieden, has said "there is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympic Games".

But the letter, signed by doctors and researchers at leading universities, said the WHO may not be properly considering the options, which include moving the Games to a Zika-free location, postponing them until the outbreak is under control, or cancelling them.

"We are concerned that WHO is rejecting these alternatives because of a conflict of interest," the letter said.

"Specifically, WHO entered into an official partnership with the International Olympic Committee, in a memorandum of understanding that remains secret."

It called on the UN health agency to disclose the memo. "Not doing so casts doubt on WHO's neutrality," it said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 29, 2016, with the headline 'Zika fears: WHO rejects call to shift Olympics'. Print Edition | Subscribe