LONDON — The World Health Organization’s chief says she has convened an expert committee to consider whether the Rio de Janeiro Olympics should proceed as planned, given recent concerns raised about the threat of the Zika virus.
In a request last month, US Senator Jeanne Shaheen asked the WHO’s Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan to evaluate whether the Rio games should be delayed or postponed. Chan said in a letter released by Shaheen Friday that the WHO has sent senior scientists to Brazil four times to assess the risk of Zika to the approximately 500,000 athletes and visitors expected to attend the Aug. 5-21 Olympics.
“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,” Chan wrote.
Chan said she “deeply appreciate(d)” the concerns raised by Shaheen in her original letter to WHO last month, which cited a commentary by Canadian professor Amir Attaran. He argued that holding the Olympics as planned would result in the avoidable birth of brain-damaged babies.
Last month, Attaran and more than 200 other experts signed an open letter asking the WHO to convene an independent group to consider if the games should be delayed or moved “in the name of public health.” The WHO rejected such calls and said “cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics (would) not significantly alter the international spread of Zika.”
Most people infected by Zika suffer only minor symptoms, including fever, a rash, and muscle or joint pain. The virus can also cause severe birth defects, including babies born with abnormally small heads.
The WHO declared the Zika epidemic to be a global emergency in February and in its latest assessment this week, said it “does not see an overall decline in the outbreak.”
The WHO has already advised pregnant women not to go to Rio and says other travelers should avoid poor and overcrowded parts of the city. The UN agency also predicted the Zika risk in August would drop since it will be the south American winter and there should be fewer mosquitoes to transmit the virus.
Critics have charged that the WHO has an overly close relationship with the International Olympic Committee that renders the UN health agency unable to provide objective health advice. In recent years, the WHO established a group to help cities not only with health advice, but to potentially help them bid for major events like the Olympics.
IOC president Thomas Bach refuted claims the organization had pressured the WHO to shirk its public health responsibilities.
“There is no pressure whatsoever,” Bach said Friday in Lausanne. “We are grateful for the cooperation with the WHO, which is giving us the information, which is helping us with data, which is helping everybody by giving advice on travel.”
— Maria Cheng