NEW YORK: A group of 125 prominent scientists, doctors and medical ethicists released a letter to the United Nations health body calling for this summer’s Olympic Games to be postponed or moved from Rio de Janeiro due to the ongoing Zika Virus outbreak in Brazil.
In a letter directed to the director of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, the group said that new findings about the Zika virus should result in the games being moved or postponed to safeguard the thousands of athletes, staff and reporters scheduled to attend the games.
“Currently, many athletes, delegations, and journalists are struggling with the decision of whether to participate in the Rio 2016 Games,” the group wrote. New information about the Zika virus was cited by the group in the letter as an additional reason to postpone or move the games.
The disease has been found to cause the birth defect microcephaly in pregnant women and has also been linked to an immunological reaction called Guillain-Barré syndrome.
“That while Zika’s risk to any single individual is low, the risk to a population is undeniably high. Currently, Brazil’s government reports 120,000 probable Zika cases, and 1,300 confirmed cases of microcephaly (with another 3,300 under investigation), which is above the historical level of microcephaly,” the group said.
The group of experts also pointed out that current mosquito-killing programmes in Rio were ineffective and that when they looked at dengue fever, which is spread by the same mosquitoes that spread Zika virus, the infections were up markedly in 2016 compared to the previous two years.
The group also claimed the WHO had a conflict of interest due to a decades-long partnership with the International Olympic Committee and said previous statements by WHO officials have been “troubling.”
“To prejudge that ‘there’s not going to be a lot of problems,’ before reviewing this evidence [on Zika virus effects]is extremely inappropriate of WHO, and suggests that a change in leadership may be required to restore WHO’s credibility,” the group wrote.
The WHO and the International Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.
Art Caplan, director of the NYU Division of Medical Ethics and co-author of the letter, told ABC News that the group was not alleging any wrongdoing by the WHO or IOC but wanted to bring up these issues to spark a dialogue about the risks involved and encourage health officials unrelated to the Olympics to weigh in.
“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, Caplan said. “We think WHO is close to the IOC. … They work together a lot.”
The big fear, Caplan said, is that the giant sporting event will enable the transmission of the virus through infected travellers to other parts of the globe that have yet to be affected by the disease.