The World Health Organization has ruled out any change in timing or the location of the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, shunning a call by doctors and scientists to shift the event over the Zika virus.
An open letter addressed to the global health body signed by 150 international doctors, scientists and researchers Friday had called for the August Games to be moved or delayed to help prevent the spread of Zika virus.
Holding the Games in Rio, the second worst affected city in Brazil, would be “irresponsible” and “unethical” and could risk spreading the virus to “poor, as-yet unaffected places” like Africa and South Asia, said the letter.
Zika, which can cause birth defects including a devastating syndrome known as microcephaly in which babies are born with unusually small heads and brains, can be introduced to a new region when a local mosquito picks it up from an infected human.
If it lives long enough, the mosquito then infects people from whom it subsequently takes blood, starting a vicious cycle.
But WHO said moving the Olympics would not have a major impact on the spread of Zika.
“Based on current assessment, cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus,” it said in a statement late Friday.
Brazilian authorities on Saturday also said the Games would proceed as planned, with the nation’s health ministry saying it would continue to follow the guidance of the WHO, which has deemed the risk of Zika infection in August the middle of winter in Brazil to be “minimal.”
Nearly 1,300 babies have been born in Brazil with irreversible brain damage since the mosquito-borne Zika began to spread there in 2015.
The virus can also cause adult-onset neurological problems such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which can cause paralysis and death.
“An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic,” experts from the United States, Britain, Canada, Norway, the Philippines, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Lebanon, among others, had stated in their letter.
“Should that happen to poor, as-yet unaffected places (e.g., most of South Asia and Africa) the suffering can be great,” it added.
The WHO and top health officials have called on those travelling to Brazil to take precautions against mosquito bites, and have said pregnant women should avoid areas where Zika is circulating, including Rio.