Geneva, Switzerland | AFP |
There is a “very low risk” of the Zika virus spreading further internationally as a result of the Olympic Games in Brazil, the World Health Organization’s emergency committee on the disease said Tuesday.
The statement came as worry mounted that the mosquito-borne virus, which has spread across much of Latin America and which can lead to severe birth defects in babies, might spread further when the Olympics begin in August.
“The Committee concluded that there is a very low risk of further international spread of Zika virus as a result of the Olympic and Paralympic Games as Brazil will be hosting the Games during the Brazilian winter,” the WHO said.
The global health agency explained that the intensity of the transmission of viruses like dengue and Zika “will be minimal”.
Brazilian authorities are “intensifying vector-control measures in and around the venues for the Games which should further reduce the risk of transmission,” the WHO said.
Only one Olympic tourist likely to catch Zika: Brazil
Out of the half million tourists expected at the Rio Olympics just one is expected to catch Zika, Brazil’s health minister said. However pregnant women should still keep away out of precaution, he said.
Facing international concern over Zika less than two months ahead of the Olympics, Health Minister Ricardo Barros told journalists that chances of catching the mosquito-carried virus in Rio de Janeiro will be almost zero.
“The statistical forecast is that out of the 500,000 foreigners coming to the Games in Rio, less than one tourist will be infected,” he said.
Barros said the figure was extrapolated from studies into the spread of dengue — a disease transmitted by the same mosquito — during Brazil’s hosting of the football World Cup in 2014, when three out of 1.4 million tourists were infected.
Despite Brazil’s reassurances, there is mounting international worry about Zika, which has spread rapidly across much of Latin America. In most cases the symptoms are similar to a cold or flu and not dangerous, but pregnant women who contract Zika risk giving birth to children with severe defects, including an abnormally small head and brain.
In an added complication, there is limited, but growing evidence that Zika can be transmitted sexually.
Brazilian officials insist that the Olympics will be safe, because they take place in the southern hemisphere winter when mosquito numbers plummet. In addition, sporting sites will be regularly fumigated.
However, Barros said the World Health Organization’s call for pregnant women not to travel to Brazil is “a reasonable measure.” The WHO issued an updated guideline this week also urging all women in Zika-affected areas to consider delaying pregnancy.
The Brazilian health ministry says that the Zika outbreak peaked in February with 16,059 cases, while in May the number was 87 percent down at 2,053.
Last month, 150 scientists signed an appeal to the WHO to ask for moving or delaying the Olympics because of the risks of the still mysterious virus. Barros says Brazil rejects this as “having no scientific basis.”
However, the crisis has become a public relations nightmare for Olympic organizers already trying to push back against fears of high crime in Rio and heavy pollution in the bay where sailing contests will take place.
“Brazil is on the front line of aiding and informing the public on this virus,” Barros said. “It’s not an alarming situation but we have to keep careful watch.”