There is a “very low risk” of further international spread of Zika virus as result of the Olympic Games to be held in Brazil, the heart of the current outbreak linked to birth defects, World Health Organisation (WHO) experts said on Tuesday.
The WHO’s Emergency Committee on Zika reaffirmed its previous advice that there should be “no general restrictions on travel and trade with countries” with Zika transmission including cities in Brazil hosting the Olympics that start in August 5, and with the Paralympic Games that follow in September.
The third meeting of independent experts, which gathers every three months to access the Zika outbreak, came amid intensifying concerns over the staging of the Olympics in Brazil, the country hardest hit by the virus.
“The risks are no different for people going to the Olympics than for other areas where there are outbreaks of Zika,” David Heymann, chair of the WHO’s expert panel, told reporters at WHO headquarters in Geneva after the meeting.
Brazilian authorities have confirmed more than 1,400 cases of microcephaly in babies whose mothers were exposed to Zika during pregnancy.
Microcephaly is a birth defect marked by small head size that can cause severe developmental problems in babies.
The virus has also been linked to Guillain-Barre, a neurological disorder in adults. International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach said the WHO’s conclusion was “very positive” for the Rio Games.
The latest meeting was touched off by a letter drafted by Amir Attaran, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa, and signed by a group of more than 200 bioethicists, lawyers and health experts urging the WHO to move or postpone the Rio Games because of the risk that they could amplify the spread of Zika.
Attaran had been invited to take part in WHO’s Emergency Committee meeting, but he declined to sign WHO’s required confidentiality agreement, and was not permitted to take part.
In an email to Reuters, Attaran called the agreement a “gag clause” that inhibits individual scientists who disagree with the committee from expressing their views.
WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said the clause is intended to allow for “open and unbiased discussions,” adding that the content of the meetings are made public through committee reports.
Lindmeir said Attaran’s letter was part of the background material the Emergency Committee considered in its deliberations.
In a document distributed by Attaran and his colleagues on Tuesday, the group urged WHO to recommend individuals postpone all non-essential travel to Zika-affected areas, which would include the cities in Brazil hosting the Games.