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Rio Olympics ‘to go ahead’ despite Zika outbreak

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The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will not be cancelled and the mosquito-borne virus will not affect the Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said. Speaking in Los Angeles on Monday, IOC President Thomas Bach expressed confidence that there will be good conditions for athletes and spectators at the Rio Games in August, despite the explosive spread of the Zika virus across the Americas.

But President Dilma Rousseff’s chief of staff, Jaques Wagner, has urged pregnant women to not travel to Brazil for the Olympics because of the risk posed by the virus.

“The risk, which I would say is serious, is for pregnant women. It is clearly not advisable for you to travel to the games because you don’t want to take that risk,” he said.

The unprecedented warning, issued just over six months from the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, came after the World Health Organization declared an emergency over the virus, suspected of causing microcephaly, or abnormally small heads, in babies.

No vaccine or treatment currently exists for the virus.

Outbreak worse than believed

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the explosive spread of the Zika virus in the Americas is an “extraordinary event” that merits being declared an international emergency.

The agency convened an emergency meeting of independent experts on Monday to assess the outbreak, after noting a link between Zika’s arrival in Brazil last year and a surge in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads.

Margaret Chan, WHO director-general said there is an “urgent need to coordinate international efforts to understand whether the Zika virus is causing birth defects.”
Al Jazeera’s Lucia Newman, reporting from Rio de Janeiro, said the increased scientific and financial help from the international community cannot come fast enough.

“Many of the most impacted counties, like Brazil and Venezuela, are in the middle of an acute economic crisis,” she said.

“And as [the virus] spreads towards the United States, and perhaps beyond, the race to find a permanent solution is just beginning.”

The WHO is under pressure to act quickly in the fight against Zika, after admitting it was slow to respond to the recent Ebola outbreak that ravaged parts of West Africa and killed more than 11,300 people.

The WHO declared that the surge in South America was “strongly suspected” of being caused by the Zika virus. WHO estimates there could be up to four million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.

Emergency declarations are meant as an international SOS signal and usually trigger increased money and efforts to stop the outbreak, as well as prompting research into possible treatments and vaccines.

Infections have been reported in 13 countries in the Americas, according to WHO, as well as in Asia, and in Africa, from where it originated.

Panama, which has reported 50 Zika infections, borders Colombia, which has so far reported more than 20,000 cases of Zika, including 2,100 in pregnant women. Colombia is forecasting it will see more than 650,000 infections.

(The article was originally sourced from Al Jazeera)

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