Zika virus: Minister says Brazil will push on with Olympics

Health workers spray insecticide to combat mosquitoes in Rio de Janeiro. Picture: AP
Health workers spray insecticide to combat mosquitoes in Rio de Janeiro. Picture: AP
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Brazilian organisers have reiterated they have no intention of cancelling the Rio de Janeiro Olympics because of the outbreak of the Zika virus, with sports minister George Hilton saying the topic “is not in discussion.”

Mr Hilton issued a statement saying he “lamented material and opinions in the press” speculating that South America’s first Olympics might be called off.

“The Brazilian government is fully committed to ensure that the 2016 Rio games take place in an atmosphere of security and tranquility,” Mr Hilton wrote.

Brazil is the epicentre of an outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which the World Health Organisation has called “an extraordinary event and public health threat”.

Health officials are investigating whether there is a link between Zika infections in pregnant women and a rare birth defect.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach earlier this week said he was “very confident” the games would take place. And Rio organisers have repeatedly said there is no talk of calling off the games.

Mr Hilton said the WHO had not banned travel because of Zika, although pregnant women have been advised not to travel to areas with the virus.

READ MORE: Zika virus likely to spread across all Americas, WHO warns

Hilton also noted the cooler, drier Brazilian weather in the South American winter when the games open on 5 August will drive down the mosquito count.

The Zika virus adds to other problems with South America’s first Olympics, including severe water pollution in Rio’s sailing and rowing venues, and deep cuts of almost 30 per cent to keep a $2 billion (£1.3bn) operating budget in balance.

Only about half of the domestic tickets for the game have been sold, and organisers fear the Zika outbreak could scare off foreign tourists.

“The 2016 Rio games will take place with full attention to the health of the participants,” Mr Hilton said.

Away from the games, Brazil is experiencing its deepest recession since the 1930s. Inflation is just over 10 per cent, the Brazilian currency has lost 30 per cent of its value in the past year against the dollar, and president Dilma Rousseff is fighting impeachment charges.

Meanwhile The tiny South Pacific kingdom of Tonga has declared it has a Zika epidemic after five people tested positive for the virus and another 265 are suspected of having it.

It is thought that these are first cases on the islands.