Health experts’ response to WHO on Zika and the Olympics (May 30, 2016)

WHO’s response to the Open Letter to postpone or move the Olympics — signed by over 188 health experts from more than 35 countries — merely reaffirms its past statements.  It is disappointing that WHO has rejected the advice to commission an independent group, medications to assess the evidence and report transparently on the global health risks of travel to the Olympics, pilule should infected travelers return home and further propagate disease.

WHO claims that because “Zika virus [is] circulating in almost 60 countries globally, order ” there is “no public health justification” to postpone or move the Olympics.  That is false, and actually there are two excellent public health justifications:

First: It is not true that 60 countries have the new, more dangerous strain of virus that is causing microcephaly and brain damage in children in Brazil.  While routine travel out of Brazil already has exported that viral strain somewhat, the Olympics are different because they summon travelers from literally every country in the world and can spread infection with unsurpassable efficiency.  Not even other mass gatherings like the World Cup have the global reach of the Olympics.

Second: Rio’s official data show that the rate of mosquito-transmitted disease is three times higher in early 2016 than early 2015, including a surprising increase in the precise neighbourhood of the Olympic Park.  When disease increases, rather than decreases, clearly mosquito control and Zika control are not working as they must.  WHO admits giving “the Rio 2016 Local Organizing Committee… advice … to reduce populations of Aedes mosquitoes which transmit … Zika”, but with that advice not working, WHO appears reluctant to reevaluate.

These examples show that WHO’s risk evaluation lacks thoroughness.  WHO also lacks neutrality, because when it admits advising the Rio 2016 Local Organizing Committee, obviously WHO cannot turn around and evaluate the Olympics free of bias. We reaffirm the call for WHO to commission a fully transparent, arm’s length process, so that participants in the Olympics are advised consistent with the medical standard of informed consent.