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WHO expert panel on Zika to meet next week, review Olympics guidance

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen inside Oxitec laboratory in Campinas, Brazil

The World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee on Zika will meet early next week to consider new evidence and review its recommendations, including regarding the Rio Olympics, a WHO spokesman said on Tuesday.

The group of independent experts, who declared an international emergency on Feb 1 and last convened on March 8, will “look at evidence around the Olympics and most likely review the travel guidance around that,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

The WHO has rejected a call by more than 100 scientists for the Rio Games to be moved or postponed due to the threat from the Zika outbreak that began a year ago.

“The role of 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,” Lindmeier told a news briefing, adding that the date would be announced shortly.

A source close to the Emergency Committee told Reuters that the meeting was planned for Tuesday, June 14.

The mosquito-borne Zika virus is linked to microcephaly, a rare birth defect characterised by an unusually small head size and potentially severe developmental problems.

Dr. David Heymann, chair of the Health Protection Agency in Britain and leader of the WHO panel, told Reuters last week that postponing the Rio Olympics due to fears that the event could speed the spread of the virus would create a false sense of security, because travellers are constantly going in and out of Brazil.

Scientists are telling the WHO that the risk of global spread of the virus is “not significantly higher” as a consequence of the Games that start on Aug 5, Lindmeier said.

“Of course there is a lot of international concern out there, there is a lot of personal concern out there because it’s a new disease,” he said. “And the best way for us to react to emotional concerns is to look at our deep science and to give clear guidance as good as we can.”

Lindmeier said it was “a risky and dangerous virus but that risk can be minimised through a package of measures”, including using insect repellent and protective clothing.

The WHO said last week that people returning from Zika-infected areas should follow safe sex practices or abstain from sex for at least eight weeks rather than just four.

Brazil’s Sports Minister Leonardo Picciani has said he expects there to be almost no cases of the Zika virus during the Olympics, adding that the country is prepared for the Games, despite health concerns and political instability.

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