Olympics and Zika? Let the Games Begin


After years of preparation, athletes, fans, sports officials and Brazil have been looking forward to the 2016 Olympics, which are set to open August 5. But, there is a fly – or in this case a mosquito – in the ointment. The mosquito-borne Zika epidemic that has run rampant in razil and spread to dozens of other countries is leading many “health experts,” athletes and armchair warriors to suggest the quadrennial sporting event be cancelled or postponed. Others, including the World Health Organization (WHO), say “let the games begin,” maintaining there is no “public health justification” to stop the Olympics because of Zika.

This past weekend, a group of 150 “health experts” signed and published an open letter to the WHO, which is the United Nations’ health agency, calling for postponement or relocation of the forthcoming Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro “in the name of public health.” The experts cited the scientific evidence that Zika can cause birth defects, most notably babies born with microcephaly or abnormally small heads. They noted some evidence that the virus has caused neurological problems, such as Guillain-Barré Syndrome. They also noted that the rate of infections has grown in Brazil in spite of mosquito-eradication efforts.

The risk is not confined to Brazil, however. The fact is that the disease is threatening people throughout most of Latin America, large swaths of the Caribbean, and even within the U.S. borders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week that 591 people stateside and 939 in U.S. territories have contracted Zika, include more than 300 pregnant women. Stopping the Olympic games will not stop the spread or slow its progress.

The WHO has also said “canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.” Their statement noted that, based on the current assessment of Zika virus, which is currently circulating in approximately 39 nations in the Americas and 60 countries around the world, there is no justification for postponing or canceling the games.

The Zika virus is alarming for pregnant women, who have been told to and should stay away from Zika-infested areas, and those who want to have a child but are being told to delay pregnancies if they live in a threatened area. Otherwise, the threats are not severe. The odds of Guillain-Barré are slim even for those who are infected with Zika. (For those not pregnant or planning to conceive soon, the odds are probably greater of getting hurt in a car accident on the way to the games than contracting a serious after-effect.) Zika is not a deadly disease like Ebola. The photos of babies with birth defects have made people forget that Zika had been considered a mild, flu-like disease before the outbreak in Brazil. In fact, many of the pregnant women who caught it last year before Zika became front-page news thought they had a flu virus.

Those clamoring for the games to be cancelled or moved cite the unnecessary risk to 500,000 tourists and athletes attending the games who may catch Zika and take it home to spread in their country. Yes, there is a risk, but precautions (such as bug spray, mosquito-repellent clothing, condoms, etc.) can help prevent problems. One could also argue that there is a risk for anyone visiting a Caribbean or Mexican resort, or even Disney World, as those areas have acknowledged recent cases of Zika.

Some in favor of the games commencing as planned cite the economic ramifications of canceling them, for Brazil, the athletes, Olympic committees, television stations that paid outrageous amounts for the rights, etc. It seems like overkill – again, this is not Ebola.

Previous cancellations or boycotts of the Olympics arose out of politics or war. The games were cancelled during World War I and World War II. Prior to the 1936 Games, there was considerable debate over holding the games in Hitler’s Germany and some countries did boycott it. Hindsight is 20/20 and Hitler was far more dangerous than Zika!

Per the International Olympic Committee, “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” In a world of daily shootings, massive migration of refugees, wars on many fronts, and pandemics, a couple of weeks of positive world news will be a welcome respite. Let the Olympics games begin as planned two months from now, in spite of Zika.

Opinion by Dyanne Weiss

ESPN: WHO rejects call to cancel Rio Olympics because of Zika threat
New York Times: W.H.O. Dismisses Call to Move Olympics Over Zika Virus in Brazil
New York Post: Zika virus infects slew of pregnant women in NYC
Daily Mail: Zika expert warns Britons to ‘think twice’ about trips to Disney World because the virus is set to reach the
CNN: The latest on Zika and the Olympics
International Olympic Committee
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Zika

Logo courtesy of IOC

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