An expert panel of the World Health Organization (WHO) today concluded that while the Zika virus and its associated disorders continue to be a public health emergency of international concern, there is a “very low” risk of further international spread of the virus as a result of the upcoming Olympic Games.
At the third meeting today of the Emergency Committee convened under the International Health Regulations regarding microcephaly, other neurological disorders and the Zika virus, the Committee provided views to Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, on whether the issue continued to constitute a public health emergency of international concern.
The Committee was also tasked with considering the potential risks of Zika transmission for mass gatherings, including the Olympic and Paralympic Games scheduled for August and September, respectively, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“Focusing on the potential risks associated with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Committee reviewed information provided by Brazil and advisors specializing in arboviruses, the international spread of infectious diseases, travel medicine, mass gatherings and bioethics,” WHO said in a press release.
“The Committee concluded that there is a very low risk of further international spread of Zika virus as a result of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as Brazil will be hosting the Games during the Brazilian winter when the intensity of autochthonous transmission of arboviruses, such as dengue and Zika viruses, will be minimal and is intensifying vector-control measures in and around the venues for the Games, which should further reduce the risk of transmission,” WHO added.
The Committee was also briefed on the implementation of the temporary recommendations issued by the Director-General on 8 March and updated on the epidemiology and association of Zika virus infection, microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome since that time.
Advisors to the Committee provided further information on the potential risks of Zika virus transmission associated with mass gatherings and the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Committee thoroughly reviewed the range of public perspectives, opinions and concerns that have recently been aired on the subject, according to WHO.
The Executive Committee concurred with the international scientific consensus, reached since it last met, that Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and, consequently, that Zika virus infection and its associated congenital and other neurological disorders is a public health emergency of international concern.
The Committee noted that mass gatherings, such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, can bring together substantial numbers of susceptible individuals, and can pose a risk to the individuals themselves, can result in the amplification of transmission and can, potentially, contribute to the international spread of a communicable disease depending on its epidemiology, the risk factors present and the mitigation strategies that are in place.
In the context of the Zika virus, the Committee noted that the individual risks in areas of transmission are the same whether or not a mass gathering is conducted, and can be minimized by good public health measures.
In addition, at the meeting the Committee reaffirmed and updated its advice to the Director-General on the prevention of infection in international travellers.
The advice includes that pregnant women should be advised not to travel to areas of ongoing Zika virus outbreaks; pregnant women whose sexual partners live in or travel to areas with Zika virus outbreaks should ensure safe sexual practices or abstain from sex for the duration of their pregnancy; and travellers to areas with Zika virus outbreaks should be provided with up-to-date advice on potential risks and appropriate measures to reduce the possibility of exposure through mosquito bites and sexual transmission and, upon return, should take appropriate measures, including practicing safer sex, to reduce the risk of onward transmission.
The Committee reaffirmed its previous advice that there should be no general restrictions on travel and trade with countries, areas and/or territories with Zika virus transmission, including the cities in Brazil that will be hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Based on the Executive Committee's advice, the Director-General declared the continuation of the public health emergency of international concern.