Health

Don’t Move Olympics Out of Rio — Cancel Them

As hundreds of doctors plead for a new venue, another physician has his say

The World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee on Zika will convene June 14 to consider new data and review its previous recommendations, including those regarding the Rio Olympics.

If you were a bioterrorist trying to expose as many of the world’s population, I doubt you could come up with a better plan than this.

In the meantime, hundreds of notable physicians, researchers, and scientists from around the world are appealing to the WHO and the International Olympic Committee in an open letter for the games to be moved. It is a decision, the group states, that should be made out of respect for the athletes, workers, and tourists who are trying to decide whether or not the trip is worth the risk.

“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,” said a letter to Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO.

In early August, more than 10,500 athletes, coaches, and trainers will descend on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Half a million foreign spectators are expected to fly in as well.

By doing so they will be exposing themselves to the Zika-carrying mosquitos before returning to their home country. If you were a bioterrorist trying to expose as many of the world’s population, I doubt you could come up with a better plan than this.

There can be little doubt that holding the Olympic Games in Brazil as scheduled will greatly accelerate the spread of Zika. Brazil is already having historic turbulence in its governance, economy, and society. This is one developing country that is ill-prepared to solve this problem, let alone do it in less than two months.

While some have suggested that concerns about Zika spread are overwrought, let’s consider Brazil’s history with this virus. Nuno Faria of Oxford University suggested that a single individual carried Zika to Brazil in late 2013. By early 2016, as many as 1.5 million Brazilians are estimated to have been infected.

Current studies suggest that somewhere between 1 percent and 29 percent of babies born to infected mothers get microcephaly.

Other experts suggest concerns are exaggerated. A recent editorial in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal noted that the Zika outbreak has been concentrated in northeastern Brazil, away from Rio. Moreover, it added, the infection-carrying mosquito is not particularly active in August, and athletes and spectators are likely to spend their time in places purged of mosquito breeding sites.

However, concerns have been raised about the WHO’s neutrality in this dialogue.

It has been reliably reported that the WHO entered into an official partnership with the International Olympic Committee, in a “memorandum of understanding” that remains secret to this day.

There is no good reason for the WHO not to disclose this memorandum of understanding to the rest of us. It is standard scientific practice for potential conflicts of interest to be revealed — look at any scientific publication.

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Brazil has an obvious political and financial interest in the Rio Olympics going ahead as scheduled. It is doubtful the Games would ever return to Brazil in the future if they were cancelled. But changing the venue or postponing the Games isn’t practical either. It’s taken years for Brazil, like any other host, to gear up for these games. If the Games don’t start as scheduled, they won’t proceed at all.

There is no longer any doubt that Zika causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains. But there are still many key questions left to be answered. What is the degree of risk Zika infections might pose to pregnant women?

That is, after an infection, how often will a fetus develop birth defects? Current studies suggest that somewhere between 1 percent and 29 percent of babies born to infected mothers get microcephaly. That is a pretty wide range. Researchers would also like to know when a developing infant is most vulnerable to the virus, and whether the virus may cause a spectrum of related problems, from stillbirth and miscarriages on the severe end, to learning disabilities on the milder end. They just don’t know right now.

Bottom line: There is much we don’t know about the Zika risk.

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While experts legitimately argue about the magnitude of the risk, nobody denies risk exists. The risks of Zika seem unacceptable to me. The Games don’t have to go on.

But if they do — no one ever drowned sitting on his or her couch. I will be watching the Games from mine.

Dr. Ramin Oskoui, a cardiologist in the Washington, D.C., area, is CEO of Foxhall Cardiology PC and a regular contributor to LifeZette.

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