“We make this call despite the widespread fatalism that the Rio 2016 Games are inevitable or ‘too big to fail,’ ” the writers said in the letter addressed to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. “Our greater concern is for global health. The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before.”
The letter shows a growing gap within the medical field on what to do about the Games. On Thursday, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “There is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics.”
The CDC’s current recommendation is that pregnant women should not travel to areas where the virus is spreading and that men with the virus who have pregnant partners should use condoms when having sex for the duration of the pregnancy.
“We’re working closely with the USOC and Brazilian health authorities, and will update our guidance if needed,” Frieden said in a statement Friday in response to the new letter.
The WHO had no immediate reaction to Friday’s letter. The International Olympic Committee has said it has no plans to cancel or postpone the Games.
There have been calls in recent months for a delay or postponement of the Olympics, but what makes Friday’s letter different is the scope and number of physicians, professors and bioethicists who signed it — from Japan to South Africa, Norway to the United States.
The officials said the Zika virus has “more serious medical consequences than previously known” and has worsened in the Rio area despite widespread mosquito treatment programs.
“It is unethical to run the risk,” the letter said. “It is therefore imperative that WHO conduct a fresh, evidence-based assessment of Zika and the Games, and its recommendations for travelers.”
The Zika virus has been shown to cause microcephaly, a rare birth defect in which babies develop abnormally small heads and other neurological problems.