A NUMBER of world-class athletes have voiced their concerns over going to Brazil this summer for the 2016 Olympics as the Zika infection continues to spread, and doctors warn that such a gathering of people in Rio could have devastating worldwide consequences.
Brazil is the epicentre of the Zika virus, a difficult to detect infection in adults which causes microcephaly and other abnormalities in newborns. In a report written by Dr. Amir Attaran for the Harvard Public Health Review, Attaran reasons that staging the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro could lead to a “full-blown global health disaster”.
“While Brazil’s Zika inevitably will spread globally — given enough time, viruses always do — it helps nobody to speed that up. In particular, 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.
“All it takes is one infected traveller: indeed phylogenetic and molecular clock analyses establish that Brazil’s cataclysmic outbreak stems from a single viral introduction event likely between May and December 2013. A few viral introductions of that kind, in a few countries, or maybe continents, would make a full-blown global health disaster.”
Attaran suggests that the Olympics should be moved from Rio to another Olympic city that has recently hosted the Games, or spreading out the events globally in cities not affected by the Zika virus.
“Which leads to a simple question: But for the Games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now? Of course not: mass migration into the heart of an outbreak is a public health no-brainer. And given the choice between accelerating a dangerous new disease or not — for it is impossible that Games will slow Zika down — the answer should be a no-brainer for the Olympic organisers too. Putting sentimentality aside, clearly the Rio 2016 Games must not proceed.”
It’s highly unlikely that the Olympics would be moved with less than 100 days left until the opening ceremony, which means that athletes will have to make the choice whether it is worth the risk to attend.
New York Knicks star and two-time gold medallist Carmelo Anthony admitted last week that he’s afraid of the potential effects of Zika, and that it would impact his decision to commit to Team USA. Australian golfer Marc Leishman, who was only in line to qualify for the Games after Adam Scott pulled out, announced he would not be travelling to Brazil to protect the health of his wife. Three-time major champion Vijay Singh cited “the Zika virus, you know and all that crap” as the reason he’s skipping the Olympics.
They certainly won’t be the last high-profile athletes to pull out of the Olympics, but the decision is considerably easier for athletes like Anthony, Leishman and Singh, who all make millions of dollars playing their sport annually. For Olympians who have been training for years for this one moment, the prize may outweigh the risks of attending.
Many countries are going to great lengths to protect their athletes, who have been warned not to expose their skin and stay inside as much as possible. The South Korean Olympic team will wear uniforms infused with insect repellent, for example. American wrestler Adeline Gray revealed last month that coaches banned her from swimming while she’s in Brazil for the Games.
Just this month, MLB cancelled a two-game series that was scheduled to be held in Puerto Rico after the Centers for Disease Control briefed Pirates and Marlins players of the potential risks of the Zika virus.