The World Health Organization (WHO) on Saturday ruled out any change in timing or the location of the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, putting down a call by doctors and scientists to move or postpone the games due to the threat posed by the large outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil.
A group of more than 100 scientists and doctors sent an open letter saying it would be unethical for the Games to go ahead as scheduled, fearing that the arrival of half a million tourists for the Games could cause the virus to spread more rapidly around the world.
The U.N. health body outlined its stance in a statement late Friday as it said that having the Games in Rio as planned would “not significantly alter” the spread of Zika, which is linked to serious birth defects.
“Based on the current assessment of Zika virus circulating in almost 60 countries globally and 39 in the Americas, there is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the games,” the WHO said in a statement.
The letter posted online was sent to Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director-general, and said that the Games, due to be held in Rio de Janeiro in August, should be moved to another location or delayed.
“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,” said experts from the United States, Britain, Canada, Norway, the Philippines, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, and Lebanon, among others in the letter.
But the WHO rejected the call, saying Brazil “is one of almost 60 countries and territories” where Zika has been detected and that people continued to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons.
“The best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health travel advice,” it said.
The WHO’s advice is that pregnant women should not travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission, including Rio de Janeiro. It also advises everyone to make all efforts to protect against mosquito bites and to practice safe sex.
Zika can cause birth defects, including a devastating syndrome known as microcephaly in which babies are born with unusually small heads and brains.
The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light in Brazil, where nearly 1,300 babies have been born with the irreversible defect since the mosquito-borne Zika began circulating there last year.