World Health Organization Rejects Call to Postpone Olympics Amid Zika Fears

WHO has called Zika a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” but is not concerned about it enough to postpone or move the 2016 Olympics from Rio.

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May 29 2016, 7:00pm

Beach in Rio. Image: Flickr/Mike Vondran

Over 170 health experts from around the world have signed an open letter to World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan calling for the postponement or relocation of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro due to concerns about the public health risk posed by Zika in the country.

The letter, posted on Friday, claims that "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." As the signatories note in the letter, the Brazilian strain of the mosquito-borne virus "harms health in ways that science has not observed before," causing neurological conditions such as microcephaly (where an infant is born with an abnormally small head) and possibly Guillian-Barré syndrome, a disease where the body's immune system attacks the nervous system.

Due to the large number of unknowns surrounding the Zika virus and the fact that Rio has the second highest number of Zika cases in the country the letter's signatories argue that it is unethical to host the Games in the city.

Although the postponement of the Games would not be without precedent (the 1916, 1940, and 1944 Olympic Games were entirely cancelled due to war and other sporting events, such as the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup, have been relocated due to health concerns), the World Health Organization rejected the call for postponement in a statement on Friday.

According to the WHO, "cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus," although the organization has previously labeled Zika a "public health emergency."

The International Olympics Committee has also issued a statement on Zika earlier this year, assuring Olympics attendees that it is working closely with WHO to ensure the safety of athletes and spectators at the Games.

As the IOC mentioned in its statement, the Olympic Games are taking place during August, when the weather will be cooler in Brazil and less conducive to breeding mosquitoes. Further measures will also be taken to combat the spread of Zika, ranging from the removal of pools of stagnant water near event sites to the dispersal of 'sweaty' mosquito-killing billboards.