Why WHO rejected scientists' call to move Rio Olympics over Zika fears

The WHO rejected a letter by 150 scientists and physicians urging it to postpone or move the Rio Olympics because of public health concerns over Zika virus.

Leo Correa/AP/File
In this Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 file photo, health workers get ready to spray insecticide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmits the Zika virus, under the bleachers of the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, which will be used for the Archery competition in the 2016 summer games. More than 145 public health experts signed an open letter to the World Health Organization on Friday, May 27, 2016 asking the UN health agency to consider whether the Rio de Janeiro Olympics should be postponed or moved because of the ongoing Zika outbreak. The letter calls for the games to be delayed or relocated 'in the name of public health.'

The World Health Organization (WHO) rejects the idea of moving or postponing the Olympics in Brazil set take place in August, disregarding warnings from doctors across the world.

More than 150 prominent physicians, bioethicists, and scientists all over the world signed a letter urging the WHO to advise the International Olympic Committee against proceeding with the Summer Olympics or change its location from Rio de Janeiro, because of public health concerns over Zika, a virus that has been linked to birth defects.

"We make this call despite the widespread fatalism that the Rio 2016 Games are inevitable or 'too big to fail,’” the authors said in the letter addressed to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. "Our greater concern is for global health. The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before."

But the WHO rejected the request saying that "cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus," according to a statement released Friday.

"People continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons," the statement read, adding that the best way to reduce the risk is to follow public health travel advice.

The WHO rejection of the doctors call underscores the tension that sometimes exists within the medical and scientific communities, often when it comes to the risks posed by a specific disease.

The WHO has previously come under fire from the medical and scientific communities, and recently over the organization’s response to Ebola epidemic that resulted in the death of more than 10,000 people, mostly from the West Africa region.

In a March 2015 report, the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) criticized the WHO for its slow response to Ebola, saying that it had cost thousands of lives that would have been saved. The MSF declared an ebola outbreak in March 2014, but WHO only declared the outbreak three months later, Time reported.

Last November, a panel of global health experts convened by Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, called for reforms into how infectious diseases are managed globally, saying that the WHO had mishandled the response to the ebola crisis in West Africa.

For their part, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) appears to be in line with WHO’s stance.

"There’s been some claims that if the Olympics happen, it’s going to disseminate the virus everywhere, it’s going to amplify it," Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Washington Post in an interview. "Well, we looked at the numbers. The Olympics account for less than one quarter of 1 percent of all travel to Zika-affected areas."

WHO officially declared the spread of Zika in the Americas to be a global emergency in February. The CDC currently advises pregnant women against traveling to Zika infected areas and urges men diagnosed with the virus, and who have pregnant wives, to use condoms or abstain from sex.

But for the doctors, 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."

New York University bioethecist Art Caplan, a co-author of the letter, told CNN that there needs to be a two-day summit of independent experts to analyze the risks posed by the Olympic games in Brazil.

"Put it online and let the whole world watch," Caplan said. "What I don't like is when experts come out and say, 'There's not much reason to be worried. These Games should go on.'"What I want to know: What are your arguments? What risks are we talking about? If something goes wrong, who's liable, and who's going to take the blame?"

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