World Health Organization (WHO) expert panel at their third meeting held on Tuesday concluded that while 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.

Apart from considering the potential risks of Zika Virus transmission for mass gatherings at the Olympic and Paralymic Games in Brazil, 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.

“Focusing on the potential risks associated with the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Committee reviewed information provided by Brazil and advisors specialising 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 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.

They also noted that it 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 however, the committee noted that the individual risks in areas of transmission are the same whether or not a mass gathering is conducted. They noted that it can be minimized by good public health measures.

In addition, the committee reaffirmed and updated its advice to the Director-General on the prevention of infection in international travelers:

1. That pregnant women should not travel to areas of ongoing Zika Virus outbreaks.

2. 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.

3. Travelers 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.

Author: Ope Adedeji