By Stephanie Nebehay and Julie Steenhuysen
GENEVA/CHICAGO (Reuters) – The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it will convene experts next week to discuss the Zika outbreak, including its impact on the Rio Olympics, as new research suggests only a slight risk that more tourists will be infected at the Games.
The emergency meeting set for June 14 will be the WHO’s third regarding the Zika virus outbreak. Such panels are required to meet every three months to review new evidence and consider whether Zika and its ability to cause a rare birth defect should still be classified as an international health emergency.
The meeting comes amid intensifying concerns over holding the Olympics in Brazil, the country hardest hit by Zika. Brazilian authorities have confirmed more than 1,400 cases of microcephaly in babies whose mothers were exposed to Zika during pregnancy. The WHO has advised that pregnant women avoid travel to Zika outbreak areas and that men who have been infected by or exposed to the virus practice safe sex, or abstain from sex, for up to six months.
The group of independent experts, who declared an international emergency on Feb. 1 and last convened on March 8, will “look at evidence around the Olympics and most likely review the travel guidance around that,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.
A letter signed by more than 200 bioethicists and health experts has called for the WHO to recommend postponing or moving the Olympics to prevent an acceleration of the epidemic’s spread. WHO has rejected the call, saying the Games would not have a significant public health impact.
But last week, the agency said it would take up the issue during its emergency committee meeting.
“The role of the emergency committee is to review all new science and all new evidence which has come in over the past months and to review their own recommendations, to make new recommendations or give out new guidance,” Lindmeier told a news
Several risk experts are predicting that a very small number of travellers to the Olympics would be infected with Zika. The event begins on Aug. 5, during Brazil’s winter, when mosquito activity is low.
Experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, project the Olympics would contribute a 0.25 percent increase in the overall risk of disease spread from travel to and from areas with active Zika transmission.
Dr. David Heymann, chair of Britain’s Health Protection Agency and leader of the WHO panel of independent experts on Zika, told Reuters last week that postponing the Olympics would create a false sense of security, because travellers are constantly going in and out of Brazil.
Brazilian authorities have sought to allay concerns over the Games as well. The local organising committee for the Olympics said on Tuesday it has not registered a single case of Zika among 17,000 athletes, volunteers and staff during recent test events in Brazil.
Scientists are telling the WHO that the risk of global spread of the virus is “not significantly higher” as a consequence of the Games, Lindmeier said.
“Of course there is a lot of international concern out there, there is a lot of personal concern out there because it’s a new disease,” he said. “And the best way for us to react to emotional concerns is to look at our deep science and to give clear guidance as good as we can.”
New projections obtained by Reuters suggest the risk is small. One Sao Paulo-based research group predicted the Rio Olympics would result in no more than 15 Zika infections among the foreign visitors expected to attend the event.
Although Zika causes mild disease in most individuals, it can cause devastating birth defects in babies whose mothers become infected during pregnancy. As a result, all experts say that pregnant women should avoid travel to any country with active Zika transmission.
Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of the popular “Today” show on U.S. television network NBC, plans to heed that advice. She said on Tuesday she is pregnant and will not travel to Brazil to cover the Olympics for NBC due to concerns over Zika.
For those who plan to attend the Olympics, WHO and the CDC have recommended precautions to avoid bringing the virus back home where it might be picked up by local mosquitoes and then infect other people. These include wearing protective clothing and using insect repellent.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Additional reporting by Anna Driver in New York, Paulo Prada in Rio de Janeiro, Nivedita Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bernard Orr)