The Olympics Won't Be Cancelled Over Zika, So Keep It in Your Pants and Use Bug Spray

Despite calls from one Canadian professor, the Rio Olympics will go ahead as planned — so the World Health Organization has a few tips on how to avoid further spread of the Zika virus.
May 12, 2016, 9:35pm
AP Photo/Leo Correa

The Rio Olympics will forge ahead, despite a Canadian professor's calls for the Games be moved or postponed in light of the Zika virus.

The confirmation follows comments from University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran in the Harvard Public Health Review that allowing the games to continue in Brazil as scheduled could lead to a "a full-blown global health disaster."

But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sees no need to delay the games, based on advice from the World Health Organization (WHO). Officials say they're confident the situation will get better in the next three months, but plan to watch the situation in Rio, where the virus is thriving, "very closely."

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"The clear statements from WHO that there should be no restrictions on travel and trade means there is no justification for cancelling, delaying, postponing or moving the Rio games,'' IOC medical director Richard Budgett told the Associated Press on Thursday.

On Thursday, the WHO — which advises the government of Brazil and the IOC — encouraged visitors and athletes to use insect repellant and wear clothing that covers as much of the body as possible, and to practice safe sex or abstain while in Rio.

Related: Rio Has Three Times More Zika Cases Than Any Other State in Brazil

In addition, the WHO advised visitors to choose accommodation with air conditioning so mosquitoes can't get in through open windows, and to avoid visits to "impoverished and overcrowded areas in cities and towns with no piped water and poor sanitation (ideal breeding grounds of mosquitoes) where the risk of being bitten is higher."

The situation in Rio is more dire than scientists had predicted, Attaran argues in his paper.

"Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession," he writes.

First, he argues, Rio de Janeiro has been hit harder than the rest of Brazil, much to the surprise of the IOC, which in January declared the city a "safe environment." Data now shows that there are more cases in Rio de Janeiro now than any other state in Brazil, and the incidence rate there is the fourth-worst in the country.

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"Or in other words: according to the Brazil's official data, Rio is not on the fringes of the outbreak, but inside its heart," Attaran wrote.

"How socially responsible or ethical is it to spread disease?"

In Thursday's statement, the WHO reassured readers that because the games are taking place in the Brazilian wintertime, "there are fewer active mosquitoes and the risk of being bitten is lower."

But Attaran dismissed the notion preemptively, arguing that there's no way to know if Zika will slow down in the winter like most mosquito-borne viruses, firstly because Rio hasn't experienced a winter with the virus yet, and second, because its spread could be similar to dengue, which slows down, but doesn't diappear in the winter. Further, he points out, Rio is in the midst of a "surprising and unexplained disease surge," with 6 times more cases of dengue in the first quarter of 2016 than last year.

The viral strain now in Brazil, he says, is "clearly new, different, and vastly more dangerous," with what appears to be a "truly causal" relationship to microcephaly — in Brazil, Attaran writes, the effects of microcephaly have been "suggestive of 'fetal brain disruption sequence' in which the developing brain and skull collapse while other anatomical features like the scalp skin keep growing."

Attaran believes 500,000 foreign tourists flooding into Rio for the Games will only help to speed up the spread of the virus. And while it's debatable how much worse the pandemic will be made by mass migration, "none can possibly argue that it will slow it down or make things better," he writes.

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And if the Games do extend the virus's reach, Attaran argues, scientists and health professionals have less time to work on developing and testing solutions, like a vaccine or an antiviral drug.

Related: 'Sexually Transmitted' Case of Zika Reported in Texas

Attaran concludes, saying that letting the Games go on in the current context violates what the Olympics stand for.

"How socially responsible or ethical is it to spread disease?"

Those wealthy enough to travel to Rio for the games choose to take on the risks, he writes, but those around them when they return home have to bear them too.

"This equity problem takes on added meaning in poorer, weaker countries like Nigeria, India or Indonesia, which haven't got the resources to fight Zika that Brazil does — and which anyway are proving insufficient."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk