Holding the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as scheduled is senseless and irresponsible. It could be devastating to public health, to tourism, and to the image that Brazil is hoping to project to the world. Postponing the games for six months to a year would be good for athletes, spectators, and Brazil.
A perfect storm is blowing up to lash the already battered games. The explosive spread of the Zika virus — declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization — is joining polluted water, construction delays, and security concerns to swamp the next summer games.
The threat posed by Zika must be taken seriously. The WHO has estimated that the virus will reach much of the Western hemisphere by the end of the year, and infect as many as 4 million people. Many people won’t know they have been infected. Among pregnant women, infection with the virus has been linked to the alarming rise of babies born in Brazil with abnormally underdeveloped heads, a condition known as microcephaly. In addition to being spread by a bite from an infected mosquito, it appears that the virus can also be transmitted through sex and blood transfusions. We aren’t sure how long the virus lingers in the body and so may possibly affect newly conceived babies. And no treatment or vaccine is on the imminent horizon.
All of that spells big trouble for Olympic athletes, coaches, workers at the games, the media horde that will cover them, and the millions of spectators the Brazilian government and the Olympic Committee are hoping to attract to the games — even if it is a little quieter on the mosquito front in August, the country’s winter season.
Even if the Brazilian government assures us that sprays, insect repellants, and other measures will keep mosquitoes at bay, the specter of sexual transmission in a country that is nervous about condoms for religious reasons and in a place where abstinence will not be likely is very worrisome.
The Olympic Games are a grand tradition, as well as big business. But in the end they are just games. They aren’t something that must go on as scheduled in the face of looming health issues.
Postponing the games would let Brazil get Zika under control — and maybe clean up the water for the water events, create a vaccine, and finish construction in a more sensible way — rather than trying to run an Olympics and battle an epidemic at the same time. That could strain any nation’s economy.
The Brazilian government and the International Olympic Committee shouldn’t pretend that Zika is not a crisis. Instead, they should make protection of public health a top priority and postpone the games for six months or a year.
Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is professor of bioethics and founding director of the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center.
Editor’s note: STAT asked the medical director of the 2016 Olympic Games, the health secretary of Rio de Janeiro, and the International Olympic Committee to present why the games should be held as scheduled. We got this response from the International Olympic Committee:
“We welcome the action taken by the WHO to deal with this issue. We remain in close contact with them and are following their guidance. We are working with our partners in Rio on measures to deal with the pools of stagnant water around the Olympic venues, where the mosquitoes breed, to minimize the risk of visitors coming into contact with them. It is also important to note that the Rio 2016 Games will take place during the winter months of August and September, when the drier, cooler climate significantly reduces the presence of mosquitoes and therefore the risk of infection.”