'The Olympics of brain damage' warning over Rio 2016
IOC and WHO urged to move Games in scientists' report on Zika virus threat
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
The Rio Olympics have been hit by allegations of a conflict of interest over the dangers of the Zika virus to thousands of athletes and fans travelling to Brazil.
Health experts have accused the World Health Organisation (WHO) of ignoring the danger to public health and being too close to the International Olympic Committee.
They have accused organisers of failing to take the threat of the virus seriously enough by refusing to either cancel or postpone the Games.
But the WHO said yesterday that postponing or moving the Olympics would not stop Zika spreading and that it would reach other continents anyway, regardless of where the Games are staged.
An open letter signed by 150 international doctors and scientists criticised a secret agreement between the WHO and the IOC and said they risked putting public health in further danger. It said the influx of thousands of athletes and spectators into Brazil would accelerate the march of the virus.
"An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and then return home to places where it can become endemic," the letter said.
In a damning assessment of the relationship between the WHO and the IOC, the letter questioned whether the UN health agency was able to give a non-biased view.
The letter states: "We are concerned that WHO is rejecting these alternatives because of a conflict of interest. Specifically, WHO entered into an official partnership with the IOC, in a Memorandum of Understanding that remains secret."
The letter called on the UN health agency to disclose the memo. "Not doing so casts doubt on WHO's neutrality," it said. "WHO must revisit the question of Zika and postponing and/or moving the Games. We recommend that WHO convene an independent group to advise it and the IOC in a transparent, evidence-based process in which science, public health, and the spirit of sport come first," the letter said.
"Given the public health and ethical consequences, not doing so is irresponsible."
One of the letter's signatories, Prof Edwin van Teijlingen, an expert in reproductive health at Bournemouth University, accused the IOC and the WHO of being "too close for comfort". He said: "There is a Memo of Understanding between them which they have not made public. They are not democratically elected organisations."
In Brazil, nearly 1,300 babies have been born with the Zika-linked syndrome known as microcephaly, in which babies are born with unusually small heads and brains.
However, Nyka Alexander, communication officer of the WHO, said: "Stopping the Games would not stop Zika. Because of how much humans travel around the globe and because of how much mosquitoes travel, Zika is going to make its way to other countries."
She added that there is currently no Memo of Understanding between the IOC and the WHO. "The only previous MoU between us was a five year one which expired in July 2015 and related to working with the IOC to promote healthy lifestyles."
Since the outbreak began in Brazil last year, the disease has spread to 58 countries around the world and the WHO has declared a global health emergency.
Brazil remains the hardest hit by the disease, with 20,000 reported cases and 1,300 confirmed cases of microcephaly.
The disease has also spread across the Atlantic to the island of Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa, and there are fears it is only a matter of time before it reaches continental Africa.
Tessa Jowell, the former UK minister for the Olympics who oversaw London's bid for the 2012 games, said: "It's a matter of great concern because there appears to be a medical disagreement between the WHO and these experts who have issued this advice this morning. The important thing not just for athletes but also the hundreds of thousands of people who will be travelling to Rio is that they are given the best evidence-based precautionary advice."
Asked if the games should be moved or cancelled, Jowell said: "Well obviously it's very difficult logistically, close to impossible, to move or cancel the games so close to the start.
"But in a way, that's not a consideration. The consideration of the IOC will be balancing the risks of the public's health, the health of athletes and the health of people travelling to Rio, against the organisation of the games."
Last week, Irish gold medal hopeful Rory McIlroy expressed his doubts about travelling to Rio. The golfer, who is engaged to be married, said: "I have been reading a lot about Zika and there have been some articles coming out saying that it might be worse than they're saying.
"I have to monitor that situation. There's going to be a point in the next couple of years where we're going to have to think about starting a family and I don't want anything to affect that."
McIlroy - who chose to represent Ireland in the Olympics, rather than Britain - is guaranteed a place on the team, if he decides to play.
"Right now I'm ready to go to Rio and try to compete for a gold medal. I am actually going to get my injection, at least I will be immunised for whatever if I do get bitten by a mosquito down there. Right now I am going and I am looking forward to it."
It's an attitude shared by many athletes. Irish badminton player Scott Evans, who officially qualified for the 2016 Olympics last week, is also determined to travel to Rio unless instructed otherwise.
"I have been reading the articles and following everything to do with Zika. We athletes have had a lot of emails with information explaining everything about the virus and how to be best prepared for it. How to prevent it and also the symptoms so they we all have as much information about it as possible.
"I think that if it really was life-threatening then they wouldn't allow us to go - so I will be travelling unless they decide otherwise."