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Rio Olympics 'should be moved or postponed' over Zika virus outbreak, leading world doctors demand

Letter puts pressure on WHO to take a firmer stance on whether gong ahead with the Rio games this summer is wise

Published 27/05/2016

Zika fears have prompted the stark warning.
Zika fears have prompted the stark warning.

The Summer Olympic Games set to open in August in Rio de Janeiro should be moved elsewhere or at least postponed because of the Zika virus, 150 of the world’s top doctors, researchers and medical ethicists have demanded in a letter to the World Health Organisation.

The blunt missive, delivered on Friday to the Geneva-based WHO, is the latest blast in a growing chorus of concern coming from both doctors and also from some athletes about the wisdom of going ahead with the Olympics given the severity of the Zika virus crisis in Brazil. 

It also asks whether the WHO’s reluctance thus far to offer any kind of recommendations to reschedule or relocate the Games might be a result of a conflict of interest between itself and the International Olympic Committe, IOC. The two bodies signed a memorandum of understanding on future partnerships six years ago, the letter points out.

More: Rory McIlroy's Zika virus fear as he plans to start family with Erica Stoll may keep him away from Rio Olympics

“Many athletes, delegations, and journalists are struggling with the decision of whether to participate in the Rio 2016 Games,” it says.

“We agree with the US Centres for Disease Control recommendation that workers should ‘Consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission’. If that advice were followed uniformly, no athlete would have to choose between risking disease and participating in a competition that many have trained for their whole lives.”

Among the signatories to the letter is Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa professor who wrote earlier this month in Time magazine that having the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro had become unwise. Dr Arthur Caplan, the director of medical ethics at New York University, co-authored the letter, as did NYU professor Lee Ingel and Christopher Gaffney from the University of Zurich.

More: Zika virus spreads from South America to doorstep of Africa

“WHO must revisit the question of Zika and postponing and/or moving the Games,” the letter concludes. “We recommend that WHO convene an independent group to advise it and the IOC in a transparent, evidence-based process in which science, public health, and the spirit of sport come first. Given the public health and ethical consequences, not doing so is irresponsible.”

“What we’re really focused on is can we have transparent, open, frank, televised, out-in-the-open discussion with experts” unconnected to the Olympics, Dr Caplan told ABC News in New York. “We think WHO is close to the IOC. ... They work together a lot.”

There is concern not only for the athletes but also for hundreds of thousands of visitors expected at the Olympics.   Also cause for possible alarm is the impact all those visitors might have on helping the virus to spread further around the world when they return home afterwards.

More: Zika virus could spread to parts of Europe by summer, says WHO

“We’re worried about bringing the mosquito back to places it isn’t, like India,” Dr Caplan said. “You have people who will be infected and ... there are people literally coming from everywhere.”

The letter originally had 125 names attached to it but an additional 25 experts volunteered just on Friday to add their signatures to it.

In addition to the Zika threat, there have been concerns about elevated levels of pollution in some of the outdoor water-based competitions like rowing and sailing.  An elevated cycle track that was constructed along the sea’s edge also in preparation for the Games drew international headlines last month when a portion of it collapsed killing two people.

More: Rory McIlroy may not play at Rio Olympics due to Zika virus

Brazil has been the hardest hit by the Zika crisis although it has now spread to 58 countries around the world.  The WHO declared it a global health emergency in February.  Bites from mosquitos infected with Zika have been connected to growing numbers of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with unusually small heads and underdeveloped brains.

The country has so far reported 20,000 probable Zika cases, and 1,300 confirmed cases of microcephaly.

The United States is attempting to ramp up preparations for possible occurrences of Zika within the 50 states although Congress this week left Washington for a two-week break without first passing funds medical officials have been demanding for researching and combating the virus.

Independent

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