With the Zika virus outbreak continuing in Brazil, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro could spark a “full blown public health disaster” – so why not move or postpone them?
That’s the suggestion made by Canadian professor and biologist Amir Attaran in an article posted to the Harvard Public Health Review this week. In the post, Attaran warns that Zika could explode into a “foreseeable global catastrophe” after the Games, as 500,000 potentially infected visitors will return to their home countries, where sexual transmission and local mosquito populations could establish new outbreaks.
“Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago,” Attaran writes. “Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession.”
The continued spread of the mosquito-borne virus that has been linked to severe birth defects and other health problems has caused hundreds of athletes from around the world to question if the risk is worth the chance at Olympic gold. The U.S. Olympic Committee has even told athletes to consider skipping the Games if they’re concerned about the virus.
While the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus to be a public health emergency of international concern in February, it has not issued any advisories against travel to Zika-affected countries, except for women who are currently pregnant.
On Thursday, the WHO responded to Attaran’s claims with a statement that included guidance on travel and mosquito-bite prevention. The organization also noted that most people who become infected with the Zika virus experience only mild symptoms like fever, body aches and rashes.
The WHO added that the timing of the Games will also help the situation. “The Games will take place during Brazil s wintertime when there are fewer Zika-spreading Aedes-mosquitos and the risk of being bitten is lower,” the organization said in a statement.
Attaran refutes this notion, explaining that Zika is little understood and therefore it is unknown what impact winter weather will have on its spread.
“With the starting baseline of Aedes-borne disease so much higher this year than last, it is far from guaranteed that the coming winter’s ebb will make a ‘safe environment’ for the Games,” he writes.
Attaran concluded his commentary by saying that he understands the excitement surrounding the Games. “But where is the love for the possible victims of a foreseeable global catastrophe: the damaged or dead adults, and the babies for whom – and mark these coldly clinical words carefully – fetal brain disruption sequence is as terrible as it sounds, and extinguishes the hope of a normal life even before it has begun?”
“With stakes like that, bluntly put, these Olympics are no game at all.”
The IOC told The Guardian that it has no plans to move or postpone the Games and has been working closely with the WHO to track the virus in Brazil.