5 reasons the Summer Olympics should be postponed or moved
Posted May 19, 2016
Rio de Janeiro is at the heart of the Zika outbreak, not the edge, and to hold the Olympics there in August would be dangerous and reckless, an Ottawa professor argues in Harvard Public Health Review.
Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa said Olympic officials and the World Health Organization must face a "bitter truth": that an influx of tourists and athletes into one of the countries hardest hit by the virus could hasten a "full-blown global health disaster."
He offers five reasons.
First, "Rio de Janeiro is more affected by Zika than anyone expected, rendering earlier assumptions of safety obsolete." It has more suspected Zika cases than any other state in Brazil.
"Rio is not on the fringes of the outbreak, but inside its heart," Attaran wrote, dismissing speculation that the outbreak will wane between July and September, which is winter in Rio.
Second, this strain of Zika is "vastly more dangerous" than the one discovered nearly 70 years ago, Attaran wrote. Among pregnant woman infected with the virus, 29 percent had fetuses that had abnormalities on ultrasounds, including not only microcephaly, but "an unusual constellation of congenital defects."
And while 80 percent of adults who contract Zika have no symptoms — and most of those who do suffer only a rash, joint pain and fever — exposure to it has been linked to Guillain-Barré disease.
Third, inviting 500,000 foreign tourists into Rio will likely speed up the spread of the disease, Attaran said, noting that the current outbreak stemmed from one single incidence in 2013. "A few viral introductions of that kind, in a few countries, or maybe continents, would make a full-blown global health disaster," he wrote.
Reason four: If the games proceed, the swiftly moving virus can outrun scientists working on a vaccine.
And finally, Attaran says, failing to move or postpone the Olympics violates its values, which include "social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
"How ethical is it to spread disease?" he asked.
"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," he wrote.
But the International Olympic Committee was not swayed by Attaran's plea. Its medical director, Richard Budgett, told the BBC that the committee is monitoring the situation but expects the risk to abate during the winter months.
At least one athlete has dropped out from Olympic contention because of Zika. Australian golfer Marc Leishman said he was doing so to protect his wife, who nearly died from toxic shock syndrome and has a weakened immune system.
Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact or by the bite of a certain kind of mosquito, the A. aegypti, also transmits yellow fever and denge.
It's not the only health risk this year's Olympians will face if the games take place in Rio. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox decried the "highly polluted waters" that may sicken Olympic rowers, sailors and triathletes. Rio had pledged to clean up the water but it remains dangerously dirty, Cox said.