Is It Time to Cancel the Rio Olympics? Health Experts Say Zika Risk Is Too High
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Is It Time to Cancel the Rio Olympics? Health Experts Say Zika Risk Is Too High

© Daniel Becerril / Reuters

With the upcoming summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro shaping up to be a potential global public health catastrophe, a group of medical professionals from around the world today released an open letter to the World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee calling for the games to be either postponed or removed from Brazil entirely due to the presence of the Zika virus in that region.

The virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and through sexual contact, can cause severe illness in adults and birth defects in fetuses. The latter includes microcephaly, which results in a malformation of the skull and brain, causing lifelong disability.

Related: Zika Virus -- Why the World Health Organization Is Worried

The World Health Organization recently declared the spread of the virus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control has issued warnings for travelers, especially pregnant women.

But the letter issued today by global public health advocates makes the point that the decision to continue with the games despite the uncontrolled spread of the disease in Brazil has the potential to affect more than just the athletes and spectators who make the informed choice to travel to Rio.

“Our greater concern is for global health,” they write. “The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before. An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic. Should that happen to poor, as-yet unaffected places (e.g., most of South Asia and Africa) the suffering can be great. It is unethical to run the risk, just for Games that could proceed anyway, if postponed and/or moved.”

The letter also points out that efforts to control the spread of the disease in Brazil in general, and in Rio de Janeiro in particular, have failed dismally.

Related: Senate Approves $1.1 Billion to Fight Zika Virus

“Despite Rio’s new mosquito-killing program, the transmission of mosquito-borne disease has gone up rather than down. While Zika is a new epidemic and lacks historical data, using dengue fever as a proxy, cases in Rio from January thru April 2016 are up 320% and 1150% over the same periods in 2015 and 2014, respectively.”

The authors call on the World Health Organization to reassess its statement on the Rio games, which currently only discourages pregnant women from traveling to the games.

The Rio Olympics were already presenting public health worries prior to the Zika outbreak. For example, Guanabara Bay, in which many of the open water events -- including some swimming races -- will be held, is practically an open sewer. Untreated sewage flows directly into the bay, and public health experts have found that the amount of fecal matter in the water there is so high that anyone swimming there is virtually certain to get sick.

Now, Brazil’s president is facing impeachment, and both the Brazilian Sports Minister and the chief of security for the Games have resigned their positions. It seems clear that the Brazilian government is in no position to solve the multiple problems facing the games anytime soon.

Related: Factbox -- Why the Zika Virus Is Causing Alarm

The authors of the open letter point out that there is precedent for cancelling or postponing the games in times of international crisis. Further, they note, it is feasible, in time, that the mosquitoes that carry the disease could be eliminated altogether.

“It is possible to eradicate the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika, from Rio,” they write. “Actually that mosquito was totally eradicated from Brazil in the 1950s, but came back after control efforts lapsed. Thus holding the Games, in the presence of Zika-carrying mosquitoes, is a choice and not necessary.”