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If the Olympics were to be held in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak would WHO act in the same way?’

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set aside calls from 150 leading scientists and public health officials to postpone or move the Rio Olympics because of the ongoing Zika virus. 

In an open letter to the WHO and the International Olympic Committee – both organisation based in Switzerland – the experts are asking for the Games to be held in another location. Professor Amir Attaran, one of the co-authors of the letter has told international media that the Games risked becoming “the Olympics of brain damage” is they go ahead as planned later this summer.  An online petition has also been floated. Read letter here.

Fear of an outbreak was discussed at several meetings at the just concluded World Health Assembly (WHA) which is the WHO’s annual meeting of health ministers and public health officials from over 195 countries. Some countries were surprised the issue was relegated to a technical briefing instead of getting centre stage. 

Zika was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on February 1 2016. Since then strong evidence has been gathered regarding its association with microcephaly (where babies are born with an abnormally small head) guillian barre syndrome and other neurological complications. If the Olympics were scheduled to be in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, would the WHO recommendation be the same,” asked a public health communicator and advocate.

The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is due to take place at Rio’s Maracana Stadium on August 5th. 

In response to a question by The News Minute Dr. Gunéael Rodier of the WHO said “….the games should not be postponed…and the Zika threat is one among other regular threats when you travel.” The WHO official urged countries to increase monitoring and surveillance, noting that “… the Brazilian Zika strain has now been found in Cape Verde.” 

The letter signed by 152 global health experts states that the Zika virus has more serious medical consequences than previously known and that the emergency contains “many uncertainties”. The Games are being held in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most populous regions in the country and amongst the largest cities in South America. An estimated 500,000 tourists from all over the world are scheduled to attend the games. Public health officials fear spontaneous outbreaks when people return home. 

There is reason for serious concern. Experts say the virus, first identified in the forests of Uganda appears to have mutated. There is still a lot to learn about the virus and ways to control its vectors and spread. The Games will bring the world to Rio and potentially could speed the spread of the virus. The WHO appears to believe that the spread of the more virulent Zika is inevitable and that normal travel precautions are all that is needed – this seems to be inconsistent with ZIKA being a PHEIC,” said the expert.

Concern among public health officials at the WHA increased was that the WHO may be underplaying the seriousness. In it’s own assessment this week at the WHA, the WHO said it “does not see an overall decline in the outbreak.” In another statement the WHO said: “Brazil is one of almost 60 countries and territories which to date report continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes. The main counter measures proposed by Dr. Rodier is asking people to protect themselves against the transmission vector which is the Aedes mosquito. “This is the same vector for other illnesses such as Dengue, Chikungunya and yellow fever,” he told The News Minute. 

Experts signing the letter raised concerns that the WHO may be underplaying the seriousness of the Olympic threat. “It is ignorant and arrogant for the WHO to march hand-in-hand with the International Olympic Committee (IOC),” he said. “How can it be ethical to increase the risk of speading the virus? Just because a fire has begun doesn’t mean you need to pour gasoline on it.” 

The experts say Rio would lead to the birth of more brain damaged children. The majority of those infected with the Zika will have no symptoms while some may experience symptoms including a rash, fever and headaches. 

No Olympic Games have been moved because of health concerns, but in 2003 FIFA moved the Women’s World Cup from China due to the respiratory virus Sars. Pregnant women have already been advised not to travel to Rio and the WHO have predicted the Zika risk in August would drop since it will be the south American winter and there should be fewer mosquitoes.

WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan said earlier this month that the UN health agency is increasingly worried about Zika but stopped short of recommending the Olympics be moved or postponed. The public health experts have also decried the WHO hiding behind its 2010 partnership with the IOC to promote public health and sports. For its part, the IOC has said it has not received any advise from experts to postpone or move the games.

This is a developing story.

 

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