A letter signed by 150 doctors and scientists has called for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to be moved or delayed due to the Zika virus. Rio is in the heart of the current epidemic.
Calling inaction “irresponsible” and “unethical”, the letter suggests that the Zika virus in Brazil is acting differently than it has in other areas, something I suggested may relate to a mutation in a recent article.
So make it 151 doctors and scientists. In my opinion, sending a half million tourists, not to mention athletes, to the epicenter of a raging epidemic is, to say least, a bad idea. They’ll come from 170 different countries, get bitten by mosquitoes in Brazil, and head back home to have local mosquitoes spread the poorly-understood virus throughout the world.
Several hundred cases in U.S. citizens returning from the epidemic zone have been identified so far. Since 80 per cent of victims don’t experience symptoms, that means thousands of Americans have likely been infected.
There are 160 pregnant U.S. women among the group that has been diagnosed with the virus. Zika is known to be related to thousands of cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that prevents normal head growth. Brain development suffers as a result.
The fact that many Zika victims have no symptoms means that other women won’t know they had the virus until a sonogram identifies abnormal growth in their fetus. Zika is also associated with higher rates of Guillain-Barre and other nervous system disorders, some of which can be life-threatening.
The Olympics have been canceled five times in the last century, but this was due to world wars, not due to public health issues. As such, the International Olympic Committee, and worse, the World Health Organization, still claim that the Olympics will be safe and “enjoyable”.
Brazil, despite mobilizing most of its military to deal with mosquito control, has hardly been able to get a handle on the epidemic and is behind on putting together some of the infrastructure for the Games, including a metro line that takes visitors to the venues.
Despite this, the government is adamant about continuing, stating that calling off the Olympics would mean stopping half-finished buildings, canceling contracts, and refunding ticket fees. Brazil is thought to have sunk about 20 billion dollars into the Games so far.
In the meantime, the CDC is expecting clusters of Zika cases to be locally transmitted in the U.S. this summer, while stopping short of predicting an epidemic. Director of the National Institute of Health Dr. Anthony Fauci says that the CDC is “stealing from itself” to fund Zika efforts here, taking money from funds meant to combat influenza and other infectious diseases that hit America. Congress and the Obama administration have disagreed on the amount of money that should go to Zika research and mosquito control, delaying what might be vital funding.
Delaying the Olympics is not the answer. It’s being held during the “winter” in Southern Hemisphere Brazil, when mosquitoes might be less active. Delaying it just puts in warmer seasons when mosquitoes will be out in force.
So cancel or move the Olympics. I’ll bet there’s a lot of countries that are under-utilizing the expensive venues they built for previous Olympics. Make the event truly global by having it in a number of countries instead of having it be one big commercial of a particular one. To have a massive sporting event in the middle of an epidemic zone is just plain unethical, if not downright crazy.
Joe Alton, MD
Find out all you need to know about Zika virus with Dr. Alton’s latest book “The Zika Virus Handbook“, available on Amazon.