Concern over the mosquito-borne Zika virus has been brewing for months, and now, public health officials are recommending that the Rio Olympics should be cancelled or postponed due to the outbreak.
In an article for the Harvard Public Health Review, Dr. Amir Attaran, Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, argues that it is “socially irresponsible” for the Olympics to proceed as planned.
“Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago,” he writes.
Considering that the Olympics are slated to begin in less than three months, the recommendation that they be postponed or cancelled altogether is as alarming as it is unlikely.
Since the Zika virus began to spread, there have been concerns about the impact the virus could have on the Summer Games, and visa versa. But those concerns have been repeatedly assuaged by Olympic officials. Back in January, the International Olympic Committee declared that Rio was a “safe environment” for the Games, and in February, and Olympic spokesman said of Zika: “We are sure this battle can be won and will not affect the Games.”
But according to Attaran, since those proclamations, scientists have learned a lot more about Zika, and none of the information is particularly comforting.
What You Should Know About Zika, The Virus That’s Harming Unborn Babies’ BrainsHealth by CREDIT: AP Photo, Martin Mejia News of the Zika virus has come to the Americans in urgent warnings straight…thinkprogress.orgIt’s clear now that Rio is not as removed from the outbreak in Brazil as was previously thought — in fact, the data proves that Rio is one of the most prominent battlegrounds for the virus. Rio has accounted for 26,000 cases of Zika, more than any other state in Brazil, and has the fourth-worst rate of outbreak in the country.
And while officials have repeatedly said that the Zika outbreak will not be an issue during the Olympics because the Games will take place during Rio’s winter when there aren’t as many mosquitoes to spread the disease, Attaran is adamant that there is “no guarantee” the virus will significantly ebb in August. After all, right now the region is experiencing a huge spike of dengue, which is proof that Rio’s mosquito-killing efforts are not effective.
But perhaps the most concerning thing about Zika is how much we still need to learn about the virus. There is a significant link between Zika and fetal abnormalities in pregnant women, but the effects of the disease on the adult nervous system are “only beginning to be studied.”
Though the health community is fast-tracking Zika research and treatments, the Olympics will bring an estimated 500,000 extra people from all over the world to Brazil, who will likely drastically speed up the spread of the virus when they return home.
For this reason, Attaran says that it is “ethically questionable” to continue, and warns that the Games could lead to a “foreseeable global catastrophe.”
Sports fans who are wealthy enough to visit Rio’s Games choose Zika’s risks for themselves, but when some of them return home infected, their fellow citizens bear the risk too — meaning that the upside is for the elite, but the downside is for the masses. This equity problem takes on added meaning in poorer, weaker countries like Nigeria, India or Indonesia, which haven’t got the resources to fight Zika that Brazil does — and which anyway are proving insufficient. Putting them at risk for Games that are, essentially, bread and circuses seems ethically questionable.
Which leads to a simple question: But for the Games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now? Of course not: mass migration into the heart of an outbreak is a public health no-brainer. And given the choice between accelerating a dangerous new disease or not — for it is impossible that Games will slow Zika down — the answer should be a no-brainer for the Olympic organizers too. Putting sentimentality aside, clearly the Rio 2016 Games must not proceed.
There have already been a few athletes who have pulled out from the Games over concerns about Zika, most notably golfers Mark Leishman and Vijay Singh.
Of course, Zika isn’t the only problem facing the host city. Rio is also dealing with horrible water pollution, a (literally) collapsing infrastructure, human rights violations, and an uptick in police brutality. Just this week, Brazilian soccer legend Rivaldo Vítor Borba Ferreira recommended that tourists skip this Olympics.
“Things are getting uglier here every day,” Rivaldo wrote. “I advise everyone with plans to visit Brazil for the Olympics in Rio — to stay home. You’ll be putting your life at risk here. This is without even speaking about the state of public hospitals and all the Brazilian political mess. Only God can change the situation in our Brazil.”