WHO Zika emergency committee to carry out new Rio Olympics risk assessment

Published: Friday 3rd June 2016 by The News Editor

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The director-general of the World Health Organisation has said its Zika emergency committee will carry out a new risk assessment on whether the Olympic Games should go ahead as planned in Brazil this summer.

Dr Margaret Chan responded to a request from US senator Jeanne Shaheen to provide a thorough appraisal of the dangers posed by Zika.

Experts have said the virus can cause microcephaly, where babies are born with abnormally small heads due to the fact their brains have not developed properly.

Dr Chan said the WHO, which in February declared the epidemic to be a global emergency, would again review its position regarding the Olympics taking place in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil has been severely affected by Zika, with almost two million people infected, and Senator Shaheen has expressed concern an Olympics, featuring athletes and watched by spectators from around the world, could cause it to spread further afield.

In a letter released by the senator for New Hampshire, Dr Chan wrote: ” To date, WHO has deployed senior epidemiologists to Brazil on four separate occasions to gather first-hand data on the current situation and assess the level of risk to the large number of athletes and spectators expected to attend the Olympic Summer Games. The most recent assessment took place during the first two weeks of May.

“Given the current level of international concern, I have decided to ask members of the Zika emergency committee to examine the risks of holding the Olympic Summer Games as currently scheduled. The experts, well-versed in travel medicine, the epidemiology of vector-borne diseases, seasonal patterns of mosquito-borne infections, and risks communications, will meet shortly.”

She detailed that “hundreds of international experts” have already analysed the risks associated with Zika, and stressed the WHO’s ” principal aim is to protect people from infection and thus reduce the risk of serious neurological complications”.

Dr Chan said the emergency committee’s advice, once agreed upon, would be immediately available on the WHO website.

She wrote to the senator: “I deeply appreciate the concerns expressed in your letter, who go beyond the immediate threat to the United States to consider what further international spread of the Zika virus could mean for the world.”

The Olympics is due to run from August 5 to 21.

More than 150 global health experts wrote to the WHO last month to say the Olympics should be moved or postponed because of the threat posed by the Zika virus.

The letter cited that the Zika virus has more serious medical consequences than previously known and that the emergency contains ”many uncertainties”.

One co-author told the Press Association if this year’s Games went ahead it risked becoming ”the Olympics of brain damage”.

Pregnant women have already been advised not to travel to Rio and the WHO has predicted the Zika risk in August would drop since it will be the South American winter and there should be fewer mosquitoes.

No Olympic Games has ever been moved because of health concerns, but in 2003 FIFA moved the Women’s World Cup from China due to the respiratory virus Sars.

Senator Shaheen welcomed Dr Chan’s commitment.

She said in a statement: “I appreciate that Dr Chan is taking this issue seriously and has directed public health experts to examine the potential for the Olympic Games to accelerate the spread of the Zika virus. I look forward to reviewing the conclusions of the committee’s findings.”

Published: Friday 3rd June 2016 by The News Editor

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