As research unfolds, we learn more and more about the damaging effects that the Zika virus has on the developing brain, and the danger it poses to couples trying to conceive. We also know that it has been linked to another paralyzing disease in adults called Guillain-Barre, and that there is currently no vaccine or cure for Zika.
In addition to the 4,759 Zika-linked microcephaly cases in Brazil, the virus has raised hell in areas of the Caribbean and Latin America, where active outbreaks have been reported in 45 countries and territories. While the virus is typically spread through the bite of an infected female mosquito, we now have confirmed cases of transmission through sexual contact.
Simply put, this virus cannot be overlooked.
But while thousands of Americans have smartly reconsidered their vacation plans to Zika-afflicted regions, and the MLB wisely canceled a two-game series to be held in Zika-ravaged Puerto Rico, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as recently as this week, has insisted that the 2016 Summer Games will go on as scheduled in the Zika hotbed of Rio.
Before we were even concerned about Zika affecting our athletes, alarms were sounded over the poor conditions and polluted waters of Brazil, and the country’s inability to address these issues. Plans were made for a fleet of boats to patrol the waters to keep trash and debris from floating into the paths of competing sailors, but that doesn’t speak to the untreated human waste that mars the country’s beautiful beaches. But Brazil has been plagued by economic woes, so who is to say that the funding for these contingency plans will actually be kept in place?
On Thursday, the country’s senators voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff over corruption and economic failures, adding to the instability just months before August’s Opening Ceremonies. I can’t say for sure, because I have not seen it firsthand, but I would be surprised if, at a time like this, the country’s health remains a top priority. There is no longer a leader to promise us our athletes and spectators will be protected, and there is no strong voice to ensure that the Zika protocols are being enforced. In February, Rio's organizing committee announced plans to protect our athletes during their stay by charging them up to $100 for a mosquito net to be affixed to their rooms.
In responding to a call by a Canadian health professor to postpone or move the games, International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical director Richard Budgett said that the committee would continue to monitor the situation closely, but the games are still scheduled to start August 5. In order to avoid a total cancellation, we shouldn’t be “monitoring the situation” in Brazil, we should be exploring our options in other countries to host the events elsewhere. It’s not the IOC’s fault completely, because none of the countries’ Olympic committees have called for a boycott of Rio either.
The World Health Organization (WHO) urged spectators and athletes traveling to Brazil to take a series of precautions to protect themselves against Zika, but none included delaying or postponing the trip. Travelers were advised to use condoms or abstain from sex during their stay and for at least four weeks after returning home, but also cited that August is winter in Brazil, so the mosquito population is expected to dwindle. That, to me, is a poor excuse, and it sounds a lot like they’re banking on the economic turnout to help the country’s instability at the cost of our health.
Look, I know that for many of these athletes, the Olympics are the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and dedication, so to cancel them would be unfair. But what bothers me most, is that we have the information readily available, and we have had it for some time, but the IOC and others are not acting in the best interest of the athletes and spectators by moving forward with the plans for Rio 2016.
By going forward and supporting the Rio 2016 Olympics, we are not considering that we might be putting dollars in front of global safety.