Rio Olympics should be cancelled because of Zika virus, says public health expert

Amir Attaran, of the University of Ottawa, says an influx of tourists and athletes to Brazil for the Olympic Games poses a danger the Zika virus could spread worldwide

A public health expert is calling for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to be cancelled because of fears over the spread of the Zika virus.

An article published in the Harvard Public Health Review (HPHR) suggests that the danger the virus poses is far greater and wide reaching than first thought or reported, with a worry that it will spread worldwide with an influx of visitors to the country in August.

Amir Attaran, of the Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, presents arguments why the Games should not go ahead, including the fact that proceeding would go against the IOC’s ethical principals.

“Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago.  Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession,” the article states.

“Rio de Janeiro is more affected by Zika than anyone expected, rendering earlier assumptions of safety obsolete.”

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The article cites that Rio de Janeiro is “not on the fringes of the outbreak”, as was first thought, “but inside its heart”.

The report cites a “very recent study” which claims that of the women in Rio de Janeiro confirmed with Zika infections during pregnancy, 29 per cent had fetal abnormalities.

Further studies are being conducted on how the disease can affect adults, with preliminary findings showing that exposure to the virus increases the chance of contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome by 60 fold.

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Spreading worldwide

One of the biggest risks brought up by the HPHR article is the increased likelihood of the disease spreading outside of Brazil with an influx of tourists.

“It cannot possibly help when an estimated 500,000 foreign tourists flock into Rio for the Games, potentially becoming infected, and returning to their homes where both local Aedes mosquitoes and sexual transmission can establish new outbreaks,” the article states.

“Basic Zika research is already on the fast track, and with time, the odds are excellent that scientists can develop, test and prove an effective Zika vaccine, antiviral drug, insecticide, or genetically-engineered mosquito.

“But by spreading the virus faster and farther, the Games steal away the very thing – time – that scientists and public health professionals need to build such defenses.”

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Social and ethical responsibilities

The article also points out that “proceeding with the Games violates what the Olympics stand for”.

It states: “The International Olympic Committee writes that ‘Olympism seeks to create … social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles’.  But how socially responsible or ethical is it to spread disease?”

Currently the IOC is following World Health Organisation guidelines for the virus, which advises pregnant women not to travel to the Games, while the HPHR article claims WHO are deferring to the IOC’s decisions.

“It is deplorable, incompetent and dangerous that WHO, which has both public health expertise and the duty of health protection, is speechlessly deferring to the IOC, which has neither.  WHO’s hesitancy is reminiscent of its mistakes with Ebola, all over again.”

The IOC told Cycling Weekly that it is working with partners in Brazil to minimise the risk to visitors and says it is following WHO’s guidance on the matter.

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