Geir Moulson

BERLIN: The World Health Organization on Saturday rejected a call from 150 health experts to consider postponing or moving the Rio Summer Olympics due to the Zika virus in hard-hit Brazil, arguing that the shift would make no significant difference to the spread of the virus.

The U.N. health agency, which declared the spread of Zika in the Americas a global emergency in February, said in a statement there is “no public health justification” for postponing or canceling the 2016 games, which run from Aug. 5-21.

Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world are expected to travel to Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian destinations this summer to see some 10,000 athletes compete at the games.

In an open letter to the WHO director-general released Friday, experts from over two dozen countries in fields including public health, bioethics and pediatrics — among them former White House science adviser Dr. Philip Rubin — called for the Rio games to be delayed or relocated, though not canceled, “in the name of public health.”

Friday’s letter cited recent scientific evidence that the Zika virus causes severe birth defects, most notably babies born with abnormally small heads. In adults, it can cause neurological problems, including a rare syndrome that can be fatal or result in temporary paralysis.

The authors also noted that despite increased efforts to wipe out the mosquitoes that spread Zika, the number of infections in Rio de Janeiro have gone up rather than down.

Several public health academics have previously warned that having so many people travel to the games in Brazil will inevitably lead to the births of more brain-damaged babies and speed up the virus’ global spread.

WHO, however, said “canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.” It argued that Brazil is only one of dozens of countries where mosquitoes transmit the Zika virus and says “people continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons.”

“Based on the current assessment of the Zika virus circulating in almost 60 countries globally and 39 in the Americas, there is no public health justification for postponing or canceling the games,” it said. “WHO will continue to monitor the situation and update our advice as necessary.”

The agency noted its existing advice urging pregnant women not to travel to areas with Zika transmission and said other travelers should avoid the poor, overcrowded parts of Rio.

One of the letter’s authors wasn’t impressed by the U.N. agency’s arguments.

“The WHO’s response is absolutely fanciful,” said Amir Attaran, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He called WHO’s argument that Zika is already being transmitted by mosquitoes in up to 60 countries “a scientific half-truth.”

“They’re avoiding the question of ‘Is it Brazilian Zika in other countries?’?” he said.

Friday’s letter pointed to the high risks from the Zika virus strain seen in Brazil, which has by far the most cases in the world and the most brain-damaged Zika babies.