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World Health Organisation 'increasingly worried about Zika'

Published 17/05/2016

A health worker sprays insecticide to combat the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus in Brazil (AP)
A health worker sprays insecticide to combat the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus in Brazil (AP)

The World Health Organisation is increasingly concerned about the Zika virus but does not recommend cancelling or postponing the Olympic Games in Brazil this summer.

The organisation's director general, Dr Margaret Chan, said: "The more we learn about Zika, the more worried we get about it."

But she added that she would be going to the Games in Rio de Janeiro herself.

Ms Chan noted that although Zika has been around for decades, it is only recently that the virus has been proven to cause severe birth defects and neurological problems - including in newborn children.

She reiterated the UN health agency's advice that pregnant women should not travel to Brazil, which has by far the biggest number of Zika cases.

She said the agency was recommending that both Olympic athletes and travellers to Rio take measures to prevent being bitten by the mosquitoes that spread Zika. But she did not see a reason why the Olympics - which are expected to draw about 500,000 people to Brazil - should be moved.

She said: "You don't want to bring a standstill to the world's movement of people. This is all about risk assessment and risk management."

Ms Chan said she agreed with the WHO's Zika response chief Bruce Aylward, who said earlier this year that Rio will host a "fantastic" Games.

In February, WHO declared the explosive outbreak of Zika to be a global health emergency and the virus has now spread to nearly 60 countries.

The agency is constantly monitoring its evolution, and could change its advice to travellers depending on how Zika progresses, according to WHO officials.

Some experts have called for this year's Olympics, which run from August 5-21, to be moved or delayed to prevent the avoidable birth of brain-damaged babies. They also warn that the Rio Olympics could spark new Zika outbreaks in other countries and speed up the virus's international spread.

Ms Chan said Olympic athletes were getting advice from their national medical advisers, singling out Australia as one country that has issued "very positive" guidelines to its Olympics team. Other countries are taking measures such as providing protective clothing, window screens and air conditioning "to minimize the risk", she said.

Australia's medical director for the Olympic team said last week that the risk of Zika to athletes was "minimal" and that the last people he had spoken to who had been to Rio recently had not even seen a mosquito.

Ms Chan was speaking ahead of next week's World Health Assembly, a crucial WHO annual event that draws more than 3,500 delegates and address six dozen topics - including resistance to antimicrobial drugs, a global shortage of medicines and vaccines and maternal health.

Despite Ms Chan's concern about the Zika outbreak, not a single session at next week's meeting is focused on the virus, even though Zika is expected to come up in a number of discussions at the assembly.

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