Zika Danger: We Should Postpone the 2016 Rio Olympics Now

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


February 12, 2016

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Hi. I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center. I am here to tell you that I am not going to the Olympics. They are going to be held in August this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They are going to be held in a country that is struggling to battle the Zika virus.

As we're all learning, the Zika virus is communicated by a particular species of mosquito that seems to somehow have hitched a ride from Africa and gotten over to Brazil and then Central America and the Caribbean, and it is probably headed up to the United States by the summer. It transmits this virus and it also transmits dengue fever. I don't know exactly why this explosion of this disease has occurred; it is probably a combination of the mosquito finally getting here and then hiding in an airplane or somebody's baggage. In the Americas, we have no immunity to it, which is probably built up a little bit in Africa. Whatever the case, this virus is here.

For most people, Zika is not going to kill them; it gives them flu-like symptoms. If you are pregnant, it looks like there is a possible association with severe birth defects, specifically microcephaly. There have been a lot of births in Brazil and Colombia of kids with abnormally small heads. It leads to intellectual impairment, and it leads to a shorter lifespan because it affects other organ systems. I don't think anybody wants to contract the Zika virus who is thinking about having a baby or is pregnant, because we don't know how long the virus lingers in the body.

That takes me back to the Olympics. Why are we not postponing the Olympics? Right now, Brazil is struggling very hard to prepare for these Games. They are trying to fix the infrastructure there and get it finished in time for the August competition. They're in debt up to their eyeballs trying to do this. We have gotten lots of reports saying that the venues for watersports are in filthy, polluted places. They haven't been able to clean them up. I think they gave up trying. So already the athletes who are going to participate in watersports are compromised.

Terrorism remains an ongoing threat. Brazil does not have tons of money. And now comes the need to deal with Zika. Maybe the epidemic will quiet down a bit by the time August rolls around. August is actually in their autumn, so there is a little less water and fewer mosquitoes, but nonetheless, they're assembling a million people for this competition and exposing them to either mosquitos who carry it or humans who get it and pass it along through sexual transmission. Another route of transmission that we are just starting to understand is through blood transfusions. These are all reasons to say, "Hey, let's take 6 months off."

Why? If we took 6 or 9 months off, we would have the ability to finish the buildings and maybe clean up the water, and also go out and kill the mosquitos. We could make sure everybody understands what to do with mosquito repellant. We could make sure that money is there to help these kids who have been born with these terrible birth defects. We could make sure we try to get condoms out there to control sexual transmission and educate the public about them. There's a lot of work to be done and a limited budget to do it. Why not make battling Zika the priority rather than trying to have the Games?

I started off by saying that I am not going. Well, I wasn't planning to go, so nothing [ventured, nothing lost]. Who really—if the epidemic is still going on in August—is going to say, "Let's round up the kids and head down to watch the discus throw in the middle of a Zika epidemic"? It is just not going to happen. Tourism will look terrible for Brazil. The media will go on and on about Zika. It'll just be a mess.

If we just postpone the Games for 6 or 9 months, we may be able to get a better diagnostic test. We may be able to come up with a test that allows us to screen blood donors so that they do not infect the entire blood supply with this virus. We may come to understand better how long the virus lingers in the body and know when it is safe to have sex again. Maybe we'll get a vaccine. These are all positive things and I think they are worth waiting for. So why don't the medical and public health communities get behind the idea that it's time to postpone the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics?

I am Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. Thank you.


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