The 2016 Rio Olympics are likely going to happen no matter what, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. Namely, because the Zika virus is a very real threat—to the point that the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a public health emergency. And now, more than 150 doctors, scientists, and ethicists have signed an open letter to Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of WHO, urging her to reconsider the event:
"We are writing to express our concern about the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. WHO's declaration of Zika as a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern," coupled with new scientific findings that underscore the seriousness of that problem, call for the Rio 2016 Games to be postponed and/or moved to another location—but not cancelled—in the name of public health.1
"We make this call despite the widespread fatalism that the Rio 2016 Games are inevitable or "too big to fail". History teaches this is wrong: the 1916, 1940, and 1944 Olympic Games were not just postponed or moved, but cancelled. Other sporting events were moved because of disease, as Major League Baseball did for Zika, and the Africa Cup of Nations did for Ebola. FIFA moved the 2003 Women's World Cup from China to the USA because of the SARS epidemic, based on the advice from university-based experts, as many of us are.
"Currently, many athletes, delegations, and journalists are struggling with the decision of whether to participate in the Rio 2016 Games. We agree with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommendation that workers should "Consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission".2 If that advice were followed uniformly, no athlete would have to choose between risking disease and participating in a competition that many have trained for their whole lives.
"But our greater concern is for global health. 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—which was written by University of Ottawa professor of law and population health Amir Attaran, NYU medical ethics professor Arthur Caplan, University of Zurich geography professor Dr. Christopher Gaffney, and NYU Sports and Society professor Lee Igel—goes on to present some chilling evidence, like the very frightening statistic that Rio de Janeiro has the fourth highest Zika virus incident rate in the world, with roughly one in 500 people demonstrating active transmission. While the Zika virus doesn't get passed from human to human like the flu, it can be transmitted via mosquito, and the world is packed with mosquitoes.The letter also goes into some pretty heavy condemnation of Brazil's public heath infrastructure, saying that a last-second push to kill off the mosquito population would be impossible.
The letter's authors also make sure to point out the inherent conflict of interest of the WHO and International Olympic Committee's partnership under an undisclosed Memorandum of Understanding. Leave it to the IOC to corrupt an organization as benevolent as the WHO. It's unclear the extent to which they have shared interests, but it's not difficult to imagine that there's at least a little incentive for WHO to support the Games.
But before you cancel your tickets and return your American flag sandals, it's important to note that many experts are claiming that the risk of Zika transmission is low for the Rio Olympics. August is typically cool and dry in Brazil—the opposite of mosquito-breeding climates. During the mosquito-transmitted dengue scare of the 2014 World Cup, which took place during June and July, only three in one million were infected. In fact, John McConnell, editor of the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases estimated, "The worst-case scenario is that there will be 3.2 Zika infections per 100,000 tourists. The much more likely scenario: Zika will affect 1.8 people per million tourists."
The Games will, in all likelihood, go on, whether or not public health experts come to a consensus about Zika. But if 150 experts tell you something is a bad idea, you might want to at least listen to what they have to say.