WHO advisory urges athletes, tourists to take precautions to avoid infection of deadly disease.
The World Health Organization on Thursday urged pregnant women not to travel to Rio for the Olympics and urged athletes and visitors to the Games to take precautions to avoid Zika infection.
Acknowledging the widespread anxiety surrounding the threat of mosquito-borne Zika, which is rampant in Brazil and which experts agree causes the birth defect microcephaly in babies born to women infected with the virus, WHO issued its first guidelines specifically linked to the Rio Olympics.
The U.N. health agency, along with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), reiterated its recommendation to pregnant women “not to travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission.”
“This includes Rio de Janeiro,” the organizations said in a joint statement.
Brazil has been the epicenter of the Zika outbreak now affecting 58 countries and territories, with around 1.5 million people infected in the country since 2015. The virus, which also causes the rare but serious neurological disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome, is mainly spread by two species of Aedes mosquito but has also been shown to transmit through sexual contact.
The Olympics and Paralympics, set for Aug. 5 through Sept. 18, “will take place during Brazil’s wintertime when there are fewer active mosquitoes and the risk of being bitten is lower,” WHO stressed. It nonetheless urged all those planning to make the trip to Rio for the games to wear body-covering clothing and insect repellant to avoid mosquito bites and to choose accommodation with air-conditioning, rather than relying on leaving windows open for ventilation. It also said they should avoid visiting impoverished and overcrowded areas with poor sanitation, where the risk of mosquito bites is higher.
Due to the risk of sexual transmission, anyone visiting Rio should use a condom when having sex for at least four weeks after their return, especially if they had experienced symptoms of Zika, or refrain from sex altogether, WHO said.
For the partners of pregnant women, the agency said they should practice safe sex for the remainder of the pregnancy, or abstain completely until the baby is born.