By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Postponing the Rio Olympics due to fears that the event could speed the spread of the Zika virus would give a "false" sense of security because travelers are constantly going in and out of Brazil, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official said.
More than 100 medical experts and scientists called last Friday for the Rio Games to be postponed or moved due to fears over the spread of the virus, which is linked to serious birth defects.. The WHO rejected their call.
Extensive travel in a globalized world is the issue, not the Games that start on August 5, said David Heymann, chair of the Health Protection Agency in Britain who also leads the WHO panel of independent experts on Zika.
"The problem is not the Olympics, the problem is other travel besides the Olympics, if there is a problem," Heymann told Reuters in a telephone interview from London on Monday.
"People go in and out of Brazil all the time for holiday, for business, for whatever. And the Olympics is much less travel, it would be one-time travel. It's actually in the winter months when hopefully transmission (of the virus) is less."
"So it's just a false security to say that you'll postpone the Olympics and postpone the globalization of this disease."
Heymann called for careful surveillance by countries of their athletes who return from Brazil, though he added that diagnostic tests for Zika were "very difficult to obtain right now".
National health authorities should advise their athletes and citizens of child-bearing age to protect themselves against mosquito bites with repellents while in Brazil and to practise safe sex on return for at least three weeks, Heymann said.
This is a precaution to prevent women from contracting the mosquito-borne virus, which can cause microcephaly and other serious abnormalities in babies. The connection first came to light last year in Brazil, which has confirmed more than 1,400 cases of microcephaly.
"This infection is a predicament for all people of child-bearing age who live in Brazil or who travel to Brazil. And that includes both men and women," Heymann said.
"Women could get infected and come back and become pregnant within three weeks or four weeks, or they could be pregnant when they get there. And men could go there and come back with the infection and infect their sexual partner back home."
Heymann is a U.S. epidemiologist and former senior official at WHO who headed its response to the deadly SARS virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003, when the agency imposed travel restrictions to try to curb that deadly outbreak.
Referring to Zika, he said: "Women of child-bearing age who are not pregnant should understand the risks before they go."
"It's not a recommendation not to go (to Brazil), it's a recommendation to balance between the risks of getting pregnant and the risks of getting Zika," he said. "But for those women who are already pregnant, there's a clear risk."
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)