Despite growing concerns from international health organizations, medical researchers, and human rights groups, officials say the Zika virus will not postpone the August Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The quickly-spreading virus, declared a “global emergency” earlier this week, has been linked to severe neurological disorders in newborns of women who have the virus.
The virus, largely contracted through mosquito bites, came to the country shortly after Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup — and many health experts believe another international event could further disseminate Zika across the globe.
“At the moment we have a new problem and are facing this with the help of the government and the authorities. Our priority is the health of the athletes, the health of all Brazilians and protection for all those who work at the Olympics,” said Olympic spokesman Mário Andrada at a Tuesday press conference. “We are sure this battle can be won and will not affect the Games.”
Not everyone is so sure. Arthur Caplan, director of the medical ethics program at the New York University Medical Center, knows canceling the Olympics altogether is unlikely. But even postponing it six months — when a vaccine may exist — could make a significant difference, he told New York Magazine.
“What I hope they might do is postpone,” he said. “Right now we don’t have a good diagnostic test; we don’t have a good screening test to protect the blood supply; we don’t have a vaccine; we don’t really have a good way to kill all the mosquitoes yet.”
But Olympic officials stress that all precautions will be taken to create an “atmosphere of security and tranquility” at the international event. Brazil has already begun battling the virus by using drones to track down areas of standing water in the city and enlisting more than 200,000 soldiers to go door-to-door handing out informative pamphlets.
Scientists are still unclear about the number of ways Zika can be transmitted. First believed to be only spread through mosquitos carrying infected blood, it’s now confirmed that the virus can be sexually-transmitted. And on the eve of Brazil’s Carnival, another event attracting thousands of visitors from across the globe, medical researchers urged festival-going pregnant women to avoid “kissing strangers,” in the event that Zika can be carried in saliva.
Although Olympic officials say the Zika threat has not impacted travel or ticket sales, overall purchases have remained stagnant. Only 74 percent of the targeted income from Olympic tickets has been reached. And recent history — paired with a struggling economy — does little to boost financial confidence. According to Brazil’s government, Brazil’s 2014 World Cup generated “no lasting business,” and was followed by a 7 percent drop in spending by foreign visitors — revenue streams they had been counting on after dropping $900 million on the international event.
Zika hasn’t been the only challenge officials have faced in securing a successful Olympics. From evicting nearly 1,000 families living in poverty from their homes to secure prime Olympic Village real estate to assigning a lake filled with raw sewage as one of the main watersport venues, the event’s officials haven’t made the best impression. NYU’s Caplan said these challenges — led by the Zika threat — call for an obvious schedule change.
“They’re prepped to have them at a particular time,” he said. “But I find myself thinking, ‘What the hell’s the difference?'”