Zika and the 2016 Olympics – Is it Safe to Go?

With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, quickly approaching, one question that is on the minds of many is whether the games should proceed considering the presence of the Zika virus in the country. It’s certainly a valid concern.

Just recently a group of academics, doctors, scientists, and bioethicists penned an open letter strongly encouraging the games either be canceled, postponed, or moved to another country. And a recent editorial in the Harvard Public Health Review also called for a cancellation of the summer games over what the World Health Organization (WHO) has already declared a global health emergency. Considering the deadly and/or severely disfiguring effects the virus can have on unborn babies, moving the venue to another country sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Not so fast.

While some strongly believe holding the Summer Olympics in Brazil could exacerbate what is already a global health emergency, others believe the risk is minimal. Their arguments are worth considering.

Should Zika Really Stop the 2016 Olympics?

Should Zika Really Stop the 2016 Olympics?

Proponents of continuing the games point out that the WHO has stated that there is a “very low risk” of Zika spreading globally as a result of holding the Olympics in Brazil. While this may seem like a contradiction to their original assessment of the virus being a “global health emergency,” it isn’t for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s currently winter in Brazil (yes, the “summer” games really are being held in winter). The mosquitoes that transmit the deadly virus prefer the warm, moist weather of summer instead of the cool, dry weather of the Brazilian winter. This doesn’t mean there will be no mosquitoes, of course, but their numbers will be greatly reduced.

Another point to consider is that millions of people have already been traveling to and from areas where the Zika virus is known to exist without experiencing any problems. This doesn’t mean that travelers can throw caution to the wind and not have any worries. Rather, it demonstrates that as long as safety precautions are made – such as using insect repellant and covering exposed skin with long clothing – it is possible to travel to affected areas without contracting the virus. Using such safety precautions is also prudent if you are traveling anywhere in South America right now due to the presence of dengue and chikungunya, both of which are also spread by mosquitoes.

Yet another point to consider is the immense investment that Rio de Janeiro has made to host the games. It takes an average of ten years of preparations for a city to be able to host the Olympics. The city has made a significant investment of resources that will be forfeited if the games are canceled or moved. Considering the fact that Brazil is currently in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s, the country desperately needs the games to encourage economic activity and to recoup expenditures already made. In response to questions regarding the country’s severe economic situation, Rio 2016 organizing committee spokesman Mario Andrada recently stated: “The games, they are guaranteed and will happen.”

The games, it appears, will go on.

If attending the Rio Olympics is on your “to-do” list, should you still go? Or should you sit this one out? Since there is no specific travel ban on visiting Rio, it’s a decision that each individual will have to make for him or herself. If you do decide to go, of course, it’s definitely wise to take precautions to protect yourself from mosquitoes.

The situation is different if you are a pregnant woman. Both the CDC and the WHO strongly recommend pregnant women completely avoid traveling to areas where the Zika virus is known to be. Although the overall risk of contracting Zika at Rio is low, the virus’s devastating effects on developing fetuses is too great to ignore. If even just one pregnant woman contracts Zika when it is so easy to prevent by skipping the games, that’s one too many.

If you are pregnant, definitely skip the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and watch it on television from the comfort and safety of home. There’s always the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea to look forward to.

Sources:
http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/18/americas/brazil-rio-state-emergency-funding-olympics/index.html
http://www.who.int/en/
http://harvardpublichealthreview.org/off-the-podium-why-rios-2016-olympic-games-must-not-proceed/

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