Here’s What’s Going On With The Rio Olympics & The Zika Virus

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve likely heard the words “Zika virus” and “Rio Olympics” paired together often, both in the media and everyday conversations. With the 2016 Summer Olympics set to start in August, you may be wondering what’s going on — is Zika a threat to tourists and athletes in Brazil? Will the games be postponed or moved?

Some background first: in February, the World Health Organization officially declared the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness that has been linked to birth defects in thousands of babies, an International Health Emergency. Brazil is one of almost 60 countries and territories which to date report continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes, according to the World Health Organization.

But because there’s this little event going on in August in Rio de Janeiro that’s expected to attract an estimated hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, some are worried that all many of those people could pick up Zika and bring it back to their home countries.

It’s important to note that the WHO advises pregnant women to stay away from any countries and areas with ongoing Zika virus transmissions, including Rio de Janeiro. Their sexual partners are urged to practice extra safe sex (or abstain entirely) for a few weeks after returning from trips to Zika-affected locations.

That brings us to the last few months, when experts have started weighing in on the potential risk of spreading Zika.

What do the experts say?

In April, a group of Brazilian scientists based at the University of Sao Paulo published a study in the journal Epidemiology & Infection that found the Olympics would result in no more than 16 additional cases of the disease, Reuters reports.

Then in May, more than 200 bioethicists and health experts signed a letter calling for the WHO to recommend postponing or moving the Olympics to keep the epidemic from spreading. The WHO responded by saying that that based on “current assessment, cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.”

The WHO noted that there are other countries out there reporting Zika transmission, but that “People continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons. The best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health travel advice.”

This week, another study from another group of Brazilian researchers at the University of Sao Paulo seemed to support the earlier projection, Reuters reports, predicting that the Rio Olympics would result in no more than 15 Zika infections among the foreign visitors expected to attend the event.

What’s next?

This week, WHO announced that it would be convening a panel of experts next week to go over the Zika issue in general and its impact on the Rio Olympics specifically.

The emergency June 14 meeting will mark WHO’s third discussion of the Zika outbreak. Panels of this nature are required every three months in order to keep abreast of new evidence, and consider whether the virus should still be classified as an international health emergency.

The group of independent experts will “look at evidence around the Olympics and most likely review the travel guidance around that,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

“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,” he told reporters at a news briefing reported by Reuters.

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