Postpone Rio Olympics? WHO to hold emergency meeting about Zika

The World Health Organization's Emergency Committee on Zika will meet to evaluate the risks tied to going on with the Olympic Games in Brazil this summer.

(AP Photo/Felipe Dana/File)
The Rio Olympic Stadium during the Men's 3000m steeplechase final Athletics test event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 2016. With the opening ceremony just over two months away, debate is growing over public health concerns.

With debate growing over the safety of holding the Olympics in Brazil amid the ongoing Zika virus outbreak, the World Health Organization's Emergency Committee on Zika will meet in the coming weeks to evaluate the risks tied to going on with the Games in August, a WHO spokeswoman said on Friday.

"The Emergency Committee meeting will consider the situation in Brazil, including the question of the Olympics," WHO spokeswoman Nyka Alexander told Reuters in response to a query.

WHO makes risk assessments of a public health issue and it would be up to the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to decide on holding the event in Rio de Janeiro, due to start on Aug. 5, she said.

"It is not within our mandate" to make decisions on holding the Olympic Games, Alexander said.

A spokesman for Rio 2016 said they continue to follow WHO recommendations on Zika.

Athletes will have to make their own decisions as to whether to risk Zika for the potential glory of Olympic gold. Cyclist Tejay Van Garderen this week withdrew from consideration for the U.S. team over concerns that the virus could present risks for his pregnant wife.

Other athletes have expressed doubts about going to the 2016 Olympics. The world's No. 1 ranked golfer Jason Day on Friday said that he's not certain he will go. Australian Day had previously been vocal in his support for golf's return to the Olympics after an absence of more than a century but he and his wife, Ellie, want to make "an educated decision" as they consider having a third child.

Dr. David Heymann, chairman of the WHO committee of independent experts, told Reuters on Monday that postponing the Rio Olympics because of fears it could speed the spread of the Zika virus would give a "false" sense of security because travelers are constantly going in and out of Brazil.

It will be winter in Brazil when the Olympics begin, so the mosquitoes that carry the virus will be less abundant, WHO experts said.

WEIGHING RISKS

A public letter was issued last week signed by 150 public health experts and scientists calling for the Olympics to be delayed or moved over fears that the Games could speed up the global spread of the Zika virus.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported, for these health experts the allowing the Olympic games to continue in Rio would be "unethical."

More than 500,000 tourists are expected to travel to Rio de Janeiro during the period when the games will be held, and the doctors argue that the tourists may acquire the virus during the trip and risk infecting people when they return to their home countries.

"Should that happen to poor, as-yet unaffected places (e.g., most of South Asia and Africa) the suffering can be great," the letter read. "It is unethical to run the risk, just for Games that could proceed anyway, if postponed and/or moved."

Top U.S. health officials agreed with WHO experts that Zika did not pose enough of a risk to postpone or move the Olympics. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last week said travel to the Olympics would represent less than one quarter of 1 percent of all travel to Zika-affected areas, and that the risk was low except for pregnant women.

For women who are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant, the recommendation is to stay away from areas with Zika outbreaks.

In hardest hit Brazil, authorities have confirmed more than 1,400 cases of microcephaly believed to be linked to Zika.

US Senator Jeanne Shaheen had asked WHO to examine whether the Games in Rio de Janeiro could accelerate global spread of the mosquito-borne virus.

Alexander said the date for the next meeting of the WHO Emergency Committee was still being decided, but that it would be held this month.

Heymann told Reuters that it was tentatively set for June 21. The panel of independent experts meets every three months and its last meeting was on March 8.

Heymann also said national health authorities should advise their respective athletes and citizens of child-bearing age to protect themselves against mosquito bites with repellents while in Brazil and to practice safe sex on return for at least three weeks.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Bill Berkrot in New York; editing by Andrew Roche and G Crosse)

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