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'No public health justification' in moving Olympic games out of Rio, says WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) has rejected calls from health experts in 35 countries to postpone or move the Rio Olympics because of the Zika epidemic.

Following an open letter signed by 188 health experts, the WHO said, cancelling or moving the Olympics would not do anything to change the international spread of the virus.

As Brazil is just one of nearly 60 countries where it has spread the WHO said there is “no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the games”.

Instead the WHO suggests travellers to follow public health travel advice.

The organisations said: “WHO advises pregnant women not to travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission. This includes Rio de Janeiro.”

Other advice for travellers includes using insect repellents, wearing light colours and choosing air-conditioned accommodation to stay protected from insect bites.

The WHO also advises people to practise safer sex while staying in an area where the Zika virus has been reported, and for at least four weeks after leaving.

The organisation added that it is working with the Government of Brazil and the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee “to reduce populations of Aedes mosquitoes which transmit chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever in addition to Zika virus”.

The letter, which said the games should be postponed or moved “in the name of public health”, cited the 1916, 1940 and 1944 games which were cancelled and other major sporting events that have been moved due to the Zika and Ebola viruses.

It was also noted that Rio de Janeiro is highly affected by Zika, with reports stating that the city has the second-highest number of probable Zika cases in the country at 32,000 and the fourth-highest incidence rate at 195 per 100,000.

The signatories are calling for a memorandum of understanding between the WHO and the International Olympic Committee to be released as there are fears the decision to support the games in their current form is a result of a conflict of interest.

In a response to the WHO's rejection of the letter, a statement said, “It is not true that 60 countries have the new, more dangerous strain of virus that is causing microcephaly and brain damage in children in Brazil.” 

It added: “While routine travel out of Brazil already has exported that viral strain somewhat, the Olympics are different because they summon travellers from literally every country in the world and can spread infection with unsurpassable efficiency.”

The response judged the WHO's evaluation of the risks as lacking in thoroughness and neutrality.

Signatories from the UK included Dr Joe Brierley, consultant critical care and bioethics at Great Ormond St Hospital, and professors from the University of Central Lancashire, University of Exeter, University of Leicester, University of Manchester, University of Warwick and Bournemouth University.