WHO rejects letter from scientists to “move” or “postpone” Rio Games over Zika Virus

  • Open letter urges for the Rio Games to “move” or be “postponed” due to Zika virus.
  • IOC and WHO reject claims made in the letter.
  • The 2016 Rio Olympics take place between the 5th and 21st of August.

An open letter from 152 people, including over 100 prominent scientists, urging for the Rio Games to “move” or be “postponed” has been rejected by the World Health Organisation. In the letter, titled “Open letter to Mr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, WHO,” the signatories express their “concern about the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.”

The letter cites scientific evidence from the WHO and other public health organisations about possibility of severe brain defects caused by the virus. However, yesterday Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the US CDC  said: “There is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics.”

The IOC (International Olympics Committee) has said it does not agree with the letter and sees no reason to delay or move the Games because of the risk from Zika. The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak of Zika as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

Rio 2016 Olympic Stadium
Rio 2016 Olympic Stadium

The collection of signatories expresses “concern” about the possible conflict of interest, due to a partnership, between the WHO and IOC. The Games take place from the 5th to the 21st August.

In a statement, the WHO said: “Brazil is one of almost 60 countries and territories which to date report continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes.

“People continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons. The best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health travel advice.”

The letter cites the 1916, 1940, and 1944 Olympic Games as examples that cancelled due to disease outbreaks, as well as the Africa Cup of Nations (Ebola), Major League Baseball (Zika), and FIFA 2003 Women’s World Cup (SARS) moving from China to the United States.

“But our greater concern is for global health. The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before,” the later claims.

“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.”

Zika: 1947-2016, WHO Click to enlarge image
Zika: 1947-2016, WHO
Click to enlarge image

However, the letter does acknowledge the risk to any “single individual”  is low, but the risk to the population in general is “undeniably” high. The Brazilian government’s own report shows that there have been over 120,000 probably Zika cases and 1,300 confirmed (another 3,500 under investigation) case of microcephaly. Rio de Janeiro, the capital and location of the 2016 Olympics, has been highly affected by the outbreak, having the second-highest number of probably Zika cases in the country. It’s estimated that 195 per 100,000 people in Rio have active transmission.

The Zika outbreak began in 1947 and is named after a forest in Uganda, however, since 2016, the virus has spread to over 60 countries and territories. The disease, mostly transmitted by mosquitoes and also known as Zika fever, has the potential to cause microcephaly in the foetus of a pregnant woman as well as severe brain malformations and other serious birth defects. Microcephaly causes the brain to not develop correctly resulting in a smaller-than-normal head. People afflicted with the disorder often suffer from life-long intellectual disability, poor motor function, seizures, and stunted growth.

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