PtG Article 31.05.2016

Group of scientists calls for a postponement of Rio 2016

The spreading of Zika virus should lead to a postponement of the Olympic Games in Rio this summer, a group of scientists argues. Official recommendations maintain that there is no need for such drastic precautions.

(Updated 1 June 2016)

During the past year, the outbreak of the mosquito-transmitted virus Zika, known to cause brain malformations in some babies has spread from the Northern parts of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro. And in one month’s time, Rio is welcoming the world to the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.

That is, if DPhil Amir Attaran and a group of scientists do not succeed in convincing the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) into postponing the Games. In an article in the Harvard Public Health Review, Dr. Attaran argues that the risks of the Zika virus going epidemic is so big that the Rio Games should be postponed or relocated.

“Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago. Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession,” writes Attaran in the Harvard Health Review.

According to Attaran, the actual speed and severity with which Zika can spread is still not scientifically known because Zika is a new emergency with many uncertainties that currently make it impossible for mathematical models to predict the epidemic’s course accurately.

The article has led to an Open letter addressed to the director general of the World Health Organisation, Margaret Chan, calling for WHO to reconsider their advice to the IOC regarding the health risks of staging the Olympics in Rio. The letter is signed by close to 200 scientists and scholars from around the world who point at the spreading of the virus in poor places or countries as a particular risk.

There is, however, strong disagreement about whether hosting an international sports event such as the Olympics constitutes a challenge, which can justify a postponement.

Official health agencies such as the WHO and the European Centre for Decease Prevention and Control’s (ECDC) assessments of which precautions to take regarding the Zika virus when traveling to Brazil are less acute that those of Dr. Attaran. In reply to the letter, the WHO said that postponing or staging the Olympics elsewhere would not “significantly alter” the spread of the virus, writes The Guardian.

According to WHO, a Zika infection will only cause no or very mild symptoms in most cases. But pregnant women are at a particular risk because Zika virus can cause the birth of children with unusually small heads and other brain malformations and disorders if the mother was infected during pregnancy.

WHO therefore advises pregnant women and women who are trying to get pregnant to postpone their visits to Brazil. A part from this group, visitors and athletes are advised to use insect repellants, practice safe sex and abstain from having sex eight weeks after the return from Rio. WHO further recommends that visitors choose air-conditioned rooms and avoid going to too crowded areas with poor sanitation.

These recommendations generally correlate with the advice from the ECDC, according to whom the biggest health risks that visitors will meet while in Brazil are gastrointestinal illness and vector borne infections.

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