WHO rejects calls to relocate Olympics over Zika fears

Former minister for the Olympics, Tessa Jowell, says virus is 'matter of great concern'

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 31 May 2016 10:22 BST
Zika virus: WHO rejects demands to move Rio Olympics

The World Health Organisation has rejected calls from 150 leading scientists to relocate or postpone the Olympic Games because of the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil.

The Games would “not significantly alter” the spread of the virus, which began in Brazil a year ago and is linked to serious birth defects, the WHO said.

It was responding to an open letter from 150 leading doctors, researchers and medical ethicists, who argued the threat from the virus meant it would be “unethical” for the Games to go ahead.

The experts fear athletes and fans travelling to the event could become infected with the mosquito-borne disease and spread it to their home countries on their return.

When pregnant women become infected, Zika can cause babies to be born with unusually small heads and under-developed brains.

The letter also asked whether the WHO’s reluctance to recommend any delay or relocation was due to a conflict of interest between the organisation and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which work closely together.

Responding to their concerns, the WHO said: "Based on the current assessment of Zika virus circulating in almost 60 countries globally and 39 in the Americas, there is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the games.

"The best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health travel advice."

The IOC has also said it sees no reason why the Zika outbreak means the Games should be relocated or delayed.

Since the outbreak began in Brazil last year, the disease has spread to 58 countries around the world and the WHO has declared a global health emergency.

Brazil remains the hardest hit by the disease, with 20,000 reported cases and 1,300 confirmed cases of microcephaly.

The disease has also spread across the Atlantic to the island of Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa, and there are fears it is only a matter of time before it reaches continental Africa.

Tessa Jowell, the former minister for the Olympics who was in charge of London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Games said the Zika virus was “a matter of great concern”.

Speaking to Sky News, Jowell said: “It’s a matter of great concern because there appears to be a medical disagreement between the WHO and these experts who have issued this advice this morning. The important thing not just for athletes but also the hundreds of thousands of people who will be travelling to Rio is that they are given the best evidence-based precautionary advice.

Asked if the games should be moved or cancelled, Jowell said: “Well obviously it’s very difficult logistically, close to impossible, to move or cancel the games so close to the start. But in a way, that’s not a consideration. The consideration of the IOC will be balancing the risks of the public’s health, the health of athletes and the health of people travelling to Rio, against the organisation of the games.”

A government spokesperson said to the Independent: “The World Health Organisation and International Olympic Committee have been clear that the Olympic Games will not be moved from Rio. As always for a Games, we are in regular contact with the British Olympic Association and British Paralympic Association to offer support in ensuring our athletes are best prepared in the run-up to competition and the Foreign Office provides advice for all those travelling to Brazil.”

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