Should Brazil Cancel The Olympics In The Face Of The Zika Virus Outbreak?

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With no signs of abatement for the Zika virus crisis threatening South America, some experts are beginning to reconsider the wisdom of holding the upcoming Olympics in Rio. Amir Attaran, a professor in the faculties of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa in Canada, published an article via the Harvard Public Health Review this month that calls for Brazil to cancel or postpone its hosting of the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro this summer. “Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago,” he writes. Attaran claims that the data available at the time the International Olympic Committee made the decision to continue with the games was misleading as to the extent of the virus’s spread, as well as the effects on those who contract it. While attention has been focused heavily on the birth defects caused by Zika, Attaran says that the virus can cause serious problems in adults, as well, including Guillain-Barré syndrome and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. More importantly, Attaran talks about the role the Olympic Games would play in disseminating the disease around the globe. “All it takes is one infected traveller” to give the disease new roots around the world, including in countries that may not have the resources or technology to fight it. “Sports fans who are wealthy enough to visit Rio’s games choose Zika’s risks for themselves, but when some of them return home infected, their fellow citizens bear the risk, too — meaning that the upside is for the elite, but the downside is for the masses,“ he points out. Attaran is not the only one who has called for a cancellation of the games. Writing for Forbes in February, Lee H. Igel and Arthur L. Caplan, both from the Division of Bioethics at New York University, also called for the games to be moved or postponed. There is some precedent for moving the games. The 1976 Winter Olympics was changed from its original location, Denver, to Innsbruck, Austria, after costs forced Denver to withdraw. (Though Attaran's assertion that other recent host cities have the facilities to take in an orphaned Olympic Games might be overly hopeful.) The International Olympic Committee stated on Wednesday that it had no plans to change the venue of the games, according to the BBC. On Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) also released a statement advising Olympic attendees to be cautious about exposure to mosquitos, but warnings were only issued to pregnant women, who are advised not to go to areas, including Rio, where the virus is circulating.

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