Will the Rio Olympics be a springboard for Zika?

The pandemic raises questions about the health impacts of sporting mega-events

Municipal workers sprayed insecticide around Sambadrome, where the city's Carnival takes place every year, and where the archery competitions will take place during the Rio Olympics. The operation is part of the city's effort to prevent the spread of Zika's vector, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, according to a statement from Municipal Health Secretary. (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

(Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

With the Zika virus threatening to undermine the already-troubled Rio Olympics, organizers and Brazilian government officials have been quick with reassurances to athletes and visitors: Unless you are a pregnant woman, you need not worry.

But the spread of the mosquito-borne pathogen, linked to thousands of cases of microcephaly in newborns, raises a suite of practical and moral questions for backers of international sporting spectacles. In the global age, are mega-events like the Olympics and the World Cup hazards to public health around the world? How do you contain that risk? At what point does the welfare of the world’s population trump a country’s desire to stage a great party?

These issues ensure that Rio 2016 will be scrutinized for reasons that have nothing to do with strength, speed or endurance of athletes. “Zika adds a component that we haven’t thought of,” says Jay Coakley, a retired University of Colorado professor who studies the impact of sporting mega-events on society. “None of us who have done studies or critical analyses [of events] has considered the environmental changes, such as those to public health, as factors that influence the legacy of an event.”

Among those concerns, says Coakley, is whether a developing country like Brazil can effectively manage an unforeseen event like the Zika outbreak. Since winning the right in 2009 to hold the Games, the once-surging country has spiralled into economic stagnation and fiscal crisis, while scrambling to complete venues, accommodations and transport infrastructure. All this at a time when Brazil is struggling to provide adequate public health care and education for its own population.

Under these circumstances, Coakley asks, “Is it responsible to invite 500,000 people in to your country if you can’t handle what their needs might be?”

He’s not the only one voicing worry. Earlier this week, Dr. Richard Besser, an infectious disease specialist formerly with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, used his soapbox as ABC TV’s health correspondent to warn that visitors to the Olympics could “come home with more than just souvenirs”—a threat that appeared all the greater after doctors confirmed a case of Zika being transmitted through sexual intercourse.

“This is already a pandemic,” Besser said. “It’s spreading very rapidly, and events like the Olympics could spread it much further. That’s the way that many viruses have been spread around the world.”

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Indeed, some believe that’s how Zika came to Brazil in the first place—catching a ride with a foreign tourist who attended the 2014 World Cup of soccer. It was probably a matter of time, then, before someone suggested cancelling or relocating the Games for the greater good, as New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan did on Wednesday.

“Virus-carrying bugs attacking people in a city hosting a sports mega-event sounds like the basis of a Hollywood plot line,” Caplan wrote in a piece co-authored by contributor Lee Igel. “The Zika virus is real, of course, and its widespread transmission requires a co-ordinated response from government institutions, health care organizations and local and regional communities.

“Brazil is going broke even without paying for the Olympics. Where should its financial priority be in the middle of an epidemic?” Moving or cancelling the Games, Caplan and Igel concluded, “is the best course in the face of a serious threat to humanity.”

Compelling as that argument may be, it’s unlikely to derail an event that opens in less than a half-year. Everyone involved, from rights-holding broadcasters to marquee sponsors, has spent heavily to ensure the Olympics go forward. Rooms are booked, tickets purchased and flights arranged. Brazil has incurred massive debt to cover the estimated $14-billion cost of the Games.

As for relocation, the Olympics are about as easy to move as the mountain they’re named after. “Los Angeles is probably the only city in the world that could host the Games on relatively short notice,” says Coakley from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., “and even it couldn’t do it in the amount of time we have now.”

So, barring further developments, the world must content itself with advice and risk-mitigation measures undertaken by this summer’s Olympic hosts. This week, some 220,000 troops fanned out across Rio de Janeiro armed with insecticide sprayers in hopes of suppressing the mosquito population, focusing on marshy, low-lying flats where Olympic venues are clustered. Virtually every official who speaks on the issue repeats the talking point that August is the low season for mosquitoes in Brazil.

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Jaques Wagner, the chief of staff to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, acknowledged that the threat posed by the virus to pregnant women is “serious,” adding: “It is clearly not advisable for you [to travel to Brazil for the Games] because you don’t want to take that risk.” But within national Olympic organizations it was business as usual. The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) issued memos to athletes and staff noting the risk to pregnant women and advising them to guard against bug bites. It also noted the possibility that Zika is sexually transmissible, says spokeswoman Cherry Ye, and advised everyone going to Rio to “take appropriate measures” (the mosquito varieties thought to carry the virus, it’s important to note, do not live and breed in Canada).

But there’s been no talk of countries taking a pass on the Games, and the World Health Organization (WHO), which on Monday declared Zika “a public health emergency of international concern,” has been curiously careful to leave the Olympics out of its public warnings.

Perhaps the WHO senses Brazil’s obvious fear that Zika could rob it of the tourism boost the Games represent. Perhaps the IOC is working back channels to protect its interests. Or maybe the WHO is hedging against the bleak prospect of the virus spreading so far around the globe by next August, that the Olympics become, epidemiologically speaking, a non-issue.

Such irrelevance would be no cause to celebrate, of course, but it might spare Rio 2016 being remembered as the Zika Olympics.

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