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WHO maintains stance on Zika, Temer and Bach state confidence in Rio 2016

The World Health Organization (WHO) has maintained that there is a “very low risk” of further international spread of the Zika virus as a result of Brazil’s hosting of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, while interim Brazilian President Michel Temer and International Olympic Committee (IOC) counterpart Thomas Bach have stated their confidence that a successful event will be staged.

The WHO’s Emergency Committee on Zika, which gathers every three months to access the outbreak, yesterday (Tuesday) held its third meeting amid intensifying concerns over the Olympics in Brazil, the country hardest hit by the virus. The meeting came after the WHO last month fired back at a call from a group of more than 100 leading scientists for the 2016 Olympics to be postponed or moved from Rio de Janeiro due to the Zika crisis, stating holding the Games as planned would not “significantly alter” the spread of the virus.

Around 150 leading public health experts had said the risk of infection from the Zika virus, which has been shown to be a cause of the birth defect microcephaly and other serious brain abnormalities in babies, was too high for Rio 2016 to proceed safely.

The Emergency Committee yesterday reaffirmed its previous advice that there should be “no general restrictions on travel and trade with countries, areas and/or territories” with Zika transmission including cities in Brazil hosting the Olympics, which commence on August 5. “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, said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Brazilian authorities have confirmed more than 1,400 cases of microcephaly in babies whose mothers were exposed to Zika during pregnancy. The meeting touched on a letter drafted by Amir Attaran, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa, and signed by a group of more than 200 bioethicists, lawyers and health experts, arguing the case for the postponement or removal of the Games from Rio.

Attaran’s group called on the WHO to recommend individuals postpone all non-essential travel to Zika-affected areas, which would include the cities in Brazil hosting the Games. The experts rejected this call, finding “no reason to decrease travel to these areas,” Heymann said. He added: “The risk of international spread is not a significant concern.”

Meanwhile, Temer (pictured) yesterday made his first visit to the Olympic Park along with Bach, in what is expected to be the IOC president’s final trip ahead of the Olympics. Temer has been installed as leader of Brazil on a temporary basis, following the impeachment and suspension of Dilma Rousseff.

Brazil’s political upheaval, along with Zika, is one of a number of issues that have plagued preparations for the Games, with the country in its worst recession in decades. Temer pledged that the financial crisis affecting the state of Rio wll not impact on the Games, adding that the national government will provide extra funding if needed.

“We will all collaborate, not just with words, but in meeting the financial needs,” Temer said, according to the Associated Press news agency. “We will do that with the absolute conviction that we are creating something extraordinary for Brazil and for the world.” Asked how much money the national government will contribute, Temer said: "I don't have those numbers yet but by the beginning of next week we'll have those numbers.”

Commenting on Rio 2016, Bach said: “After this meeting with President Temer today, I am even more confident it will be a great Olympic Games. From the outside, we see deep divisions in this country, whether it's political, social, financial, it's all about divisions and controversy. Brazil needs now something which is unifying the country.”