Health and Medicine

Public Health Experts Clash Over Olympic Zika Fears

When you’ve trained your entire life for one shot at glory, the thought of that opportunity being cancelled because of public health fears is understandably not something you’d be thrilled about. However, with the Zika crisis still not under control, a global collection of more than 180 health experts have signed an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), calling for this summer’s Olympics in Rio to be postponed or relocated – something the WHO has since rejected.

With Rio currently preparing to host the biggest sporting event on the planet, some 500,000 foreign tourists are expected to descend on the city in order to witness the Games. Yet with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising against travel to areas of active Zika transmission, the scientists behind the letter claim it is unwise for either athletes or spectators to head to Brazil this summer.

According to the authors, “Rio de Janeiro is highly affected by Zika,” with the state currently experiencing “the second-highest number of probable Zika cases in the country (32,000) and the fourth-highest incidence rate (195 per 100,000), demonstrating active transmission.” Indeed, despite efforts to curb the spread of the virus, the number of new cases in Rio rose by 320 percent between January and April this year.

The implications of this, say the signatories of the letter, are unknown – but could potentially be huge. Since the Brazilian strain of Zika has been shown to cause microcephaly, the danger of the virus being carried around the world by tourists exiting the country could present significant public health risks – especially to pregnant women.

While attempts to control the situation are ongoing, the authors claim that hosting the Olympic Games will only divert vital resources away from these efforts. For instance, Rio’s city government recently cut its funding for fighting mosquito-borne diseases by 20 percent.

Zika is mainly transmitted by mosquitoes. nechaevkon/Shutterstock

As such, the group are now calling for the authorities to re-assess the situation, advising that it may be necessary to move the Olympics to another location, or postpone them until the Zika situation has subsided in Rio. Should this occur, it would not be the first time a major global sporting event has been disrupted by a disease outbreak. The 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup, for instance, was moved from China to the US in the wake of the SARS outbreak.

However, the WHO has since responded to the open letter, claiming that it is not necessary to make any changes to the original plan for this summer’s Olympics. In a statement, the organization explained that “based on current assessment, cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.”

In spite of this, the WHO does advise that anyone traveling to Rio for the Games to take precautions against becoming infected with the virus. For instance, it recommends that visitors use insect repellent and avoid parts of the city with particularly bad sanitation or stagnant water. Finally, any visitors lucky enough to enjoy a holiday romance while in Rio are advised to keep their Olympic flame under control and practice safe sex, as the disease has been shown to be transmissible via body fluids.

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