Risk of Zika spreading during Olympics considered low: WHO

There is a very low risk of further international spread of Zika virus as a result of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Brazil, the World Health Organization's emergency committee says.

Winter season in Brazil and mosquito control measures should reduce risk

Further international spread of the Zika virus as a result of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Brazil is unlikely, the World Health Organization's emergency committee says.

Brazil will be hosting the Games during the country's winter when the intensity of transmission of the virus will be minimal, and mosquito-control measures in Olympic and ParaOlympic venues will further cut the risk of transmission, the United Nations public health agency said Tuesday. 

"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.

The risk is already low for the virus to spread internationally, he added. 

WHO continues to advise that:

  • Pregnant women should not travel to areas of Zika virus outbreaks; pregnant women whose sexual partners live in or travel to areas with Zika virus outbreaks should ensure safe sexual practices, such as use of condoms, or abstain from sex for the duration of their pregnancy.
  • Travellers to areas with Zika virus outbreaks should stay up to date on potential risks and appropriate measures to reduce the possibility of exposure through mosquito bites and sexual transmission. When they return, they should take appropriate measures, including safe sex, to reduce the risk of transmission.

A substantial portion of those infected with Zika don't show symptoms and the infection is otherwise mild, said Dr. Bruce Aylward, WHO's executive director of outbreaks and health emergencies cluster.

WHO declared Zika to be a global emergency in February.

The mosquito-transmitted virus has been proven to cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by a small head that can lead to severe developmental problems.

The expert panel also concurred with the international scientific consensus that the virus is a cause of Guillain-Barré, a neurological disorder in adults that can lead to temporary paralysis.

Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University expert in international health law, welcomed the advice.  

"The risk of holding the Olympic Games is lower than the risk of cancelling or postponing [them] due to the economic and political turmoil it would cause in Brazil," he said.
"[But] I am concerned that the WHO and International Olympic Committee have placed virtually all the burden on Brazil for [mosquito] vector control."

The panel based its recommendation on information in countries with Zika transmission, namely Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, France and the U.S.  

The individual risks in areas of transmission are the same whether or not mass gatherings occur, the panel concluded.

With files from Reuters