UN: Risk that Rio Olympics will spread Zika is ‘very low’

Health workers stand in the Sambadrome spraying insecticide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the Zika virus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. AP Photo

GENEVA — There is “a very low risk” that the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics will accelerate the spread of the Zika virus around the globe, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

After convening a meeting of its independent Zika experts, the U.N. health agency reaffirmed its previous advice that only pregnant women should skip the Aug. 5-21 games in Brazil, the epicenter of the ongoing outbreak.

The explosive spread of the Zika virus was declared a global emergency in February. The disease is largely spread by mosquitoes, but in rare cases can also be transmitted via sex. In most cases, Zika causes only mild symptoms like a fever and rash, but it is also responsible for severe birth defects including babies born with abnormally small heads and a rare neurological syndrome that can cause death or temporary paralysis.

After numerous outsiders raised concerns about whether or not the Rio games should be moved or postponed because of the Zika threat, WHO said the issue would be considered at its Tuesday meeting.

The expert group acknowledged that mass gatherings like the Olympics “can result in the amplification of transmission” but still insisted that “the individual risks in areas of transmission are the same whether or not a mass gathering is conducted.”

Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO director of emergency programs, said that the increase in travel to Rio because of the Olympics would be “very, very marginal.”

“I am not invested in whether or not the Games happen in Brazil or not. I mean, it would be great if they do: I think the Olympic Games are a great thing, and I think the world needs them now more than ever,” Aylward said.

The committee issued various recommendations to Brazilian officials and said authorities should intensify mosquito control measures and “ensure the availability of sufficient insect repellent and condoms for athletes and visitors.”

Last week, Brazil’s new health minister said there was practically “zero” risk that any of the expected 500,000 Olympic visitors would be infected with Zika. Some athletes, journalists and others have expressed reservations about attending the games.

One of the leading critics of the WHO says he was invited to sit on the emergency committee, only to have his invitation rescinded when he refused to sign a confidentiality clause.

Last month, Canadian professor Amir Attaran and more than 200 colleagues wrote an open letter to WHO, accusing it of shirking its responsibilities by not considering whether to recommend delaying or canceling the Rio Olympics. He then received an invitation from WHO to sit on their Zika committee.

But when the agency sent him a number of forms needed for his participation, including one with a clause that deems the committee deliberations to be secret, Attaran refused to sign and struck out that particular clause.

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said that because Attaran did not agree to the standard confidentiality form required of all experts, he was not issued a formal invitation and, thus, there was nothing to rescind. Lindmeier said that WHO was unaware of any previous cases of a potential committee member refusing to agree to keep deliberations secret.

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