Health concerns have continued to rise over the mosquito-borne Zika virus ahead of the Olympic Games to be held in Brazil, later in the year.
According to media reports, one prospective US Olympian has pulled his name from consideration of participating in the Rio Olympic Games, citing concern for his pregnant wife’s health.
But World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the Olympic Games should go on as planned. On Tuesday, the international public health agency reaffirmed its earlier advice that there should be “no general restrictions on travel and trade with countries, areas and/or territories” with Zika transmission.
Athletes and spectators were however cautioned to take precautions against infection with the virus. Pregnant women were advised against attending the event in Brazil. Men who have been infected or exposed to the virus were also urged to practice safe sex, or abstain from sex, for up to six months.
The WHO’s Emergency Committee on Zika, a disease linked to birth defects, said that the advice also encompassed cities in Brazil identified to host the Olympics that start on August 5, followed by the Paralympic Games in September.
The announcement came amid intensifying concerns over the Olympics being held in Brazil, the country worst hit by the outbreak. The third meeting of independent experts gathers every three months to access the Zika virus associated with baby’s being born with microcephaly.
According to Brazilian authorities, more than 1,400 cases of microcephaly in babies whose mothers were exposed to Zika during pregnancy have been confirmed. Baby’s exposed to the virus are born with birth defect identified by small head size that is linked to severe developmental problems in babies. Among the adults, the virus has also been linked to Guillain-Barre, a neurological disorder.
With a large number of attendees, some people are expected to contract the virus and bring it back home, but WHO officials said the risk in August- winter period in Rio de Janeiro- is relatively low.
“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.
According to the officials, travel related risks to and from Rio and other cities accounts for only a fraction of the travel already happening to and from countries with active Zika transmission.
WHO director of emergencies, Dr Bruce Aylward, noted that 20 percent of the world’s population lived in Zika-affected areas while almost 30 per cent of international travel was into and out of such areas.
“The proportion of that travel that will be affected by the Olympics (is) very, very, very marginal.” Travelers were however cautioned to be aware of the risk and take steps to protect themselves from mosquito bites or sexual transmission.
Commenting on the latest announcement by WHO, International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach said the conclusion arrived at by the health agency was “very positive” for the Rio Games.
Authorities in Brazil have continued to reassure those attending the event that all precautions will be taken, with major tourist spots and other locations being inspected daily during the games to ensure there are no puddles or breeding grounds for mosquitoes.