How Much to Worry about the “Zika Olympics”

 /  July 25, 2016, 9:57 a.m.

rio olympics

Three of the world’s top four golfers are now officially not participating in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, South Korea has designed some of its uniforms for increased mosquito safety, and hundreds of health officials and academics have signed an open letter aimed at relocating or delaying the Games. All of this is due to Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a public health emergency for just the fourth time in the organization’s existence. Yet in spite of these reactions to the disease, the WHO’s official statement released on June 14 declared that “there is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the [G]ames.” The Olympics are set to commence on August 5 as planned, but should they?

This concern harkens back to studies done on the health safety of athletes during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Although there was no concern about Zika at the time, there were still other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and chikungunya for public health officials to worry about. A risk study conducted on potential tourists and teams coming to Brazil in 2014 for the World Cup estimated that “between 26 and 59 dengue cases will occur among tourists and none among teams,” a remarkably low rate. The World Cup was held in twelve cities across Brazil, and few if any additional preventative measures were taken to protect tourists and athletes from dengue. Compare that to the relatively small number of Olympic facilities, the massive public awareness campaigns, and the extensive preventative measures that the government is taking, like its ambitious mosquito eradication efforts. Those who believe the Olympics should occur as planned note that the World Cup was not canceled or moved despite its own health risks.

But Zika is not dengue, critics argue. The primary argument against going forward with the Rio Olympics lies in the mystery that still surrounds the illness. Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently confirmed a causal link between the virus and microcephaly, no one yet knows how or why the illness causes neurological development issues. A causal link has also been declared between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disease that causes muscle weakness and often paralysis in adults. Zika is largely a mild illness, with 80 percent of those infected not even showing symptoms like a rash, red eyes, or fever. But the strain that has now spread to sixty-two countries and resulted in central nervous system malformations in thirteen can somehow lead to grave side effects. Relocation advocates argue that it is irresponsible for the Olympic Committee to require athletes or spectators to travel to a Zika-infected area to take part in the Games before the reasons behind these neurological defects are understood. The advocates for delay refer to the cancellation of another large sporting event due to a poorly-understood epidemic: the FIFA Women’s World Cup was moved out of China in 2003 due to concerns about SARS, a highly dangerous and contagious respiratory disease. Any traveler to Rio, they contend, runs the risk of becoming infected and bringing Zika back to their home country—2.2 billion people live in areas where Zika can readily thrive. Those who wish to change the location of the Olympics do not want a disease with such poorly-understood pathways to serious side effects to become a pandemic.

But ultimately, tourists contracting Zika is not just a problem for Rio, not just a problem for the Olympics, and not even just a problem for Brazil. Officials point out that there should be just as much attention and concern devoted to tourists traveling in and out of other Zika-affected areas. The expected five hundred thousand people coming to Brazil for the Olympics make up only about 0.25 percent of the total estimated travelers between the US and all countries where the Zika virus is circulating. Additionally, the most recent estimates suggest that only between 1.8 and 3.2 tourists per 100,000 will be exposed to Zika when visiting Rio during the Games. These rates are actually higher in other places where it is still mosquito season. As the WHO notes in its statement on Zika and the Olympics, in the end, “the best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health travel advice.” Those who plan to travel to infected areas, for the Olympics or any other reason, should take caution, stay home if they’re pregnant, practice safe sex, and apply mosquito repellent.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Evan Eschliman


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