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Health expert recommends moving Rio Olympics due to Zika virus threat

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The games may speed up the spread of the virus

John Moore/Getty Images

If the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro proceed as planned this summer, the threat of the mosquito-born Zika virus may substantially increase, according to Canadian professor and biologist Amir Attaran. Writing in an article posted to the Harvard Public Health Review this week, Attaran argues for postponing or moving the Rio Olympics. He says the games, which are estimated to bring 500,000 foreign tourists to Brazil, could both speed up the spread of the virus and complicate the process of developing a vaccine or some other measure to fight it.

The Zika virus entered Brazil last year and has since spread to over 50 countries. Zika has been scientifically proven to cause microcephaly in unborn children, resulting in babies born with abnormally small heads and severe brain damage. It's also dangerous to adults, having been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological auto-immune disease that can cause paralysis and death. Late last month, the first Zika death in the US was reported in Puerto Rico, while Rio alone has 26,000 suspected Zika cases.

Attaran says the Olympics could speed up the spread of the Zika virus

Attaran lays out key reasons for why moving the Olympics out of Rio is a necessary precaution. He says Rio has the highest number of Zika cases of any state in Brazil, and the fourth highest incidence rate in the country. "According to the Brazil’s official data, Rio is not on the fringes of the outbreak, but inside its heart," Attaran writes. He also explains how this strain of the virus is more dangerous than the strain of Zika first discovered nearly 70 years ago. Hosting the event, he adds, would violate the Olympics' commitment to social responsibility. "By spreading the virus faster and farther, the Games steal away the very thing — time — that scientists and public health professionals need to build such defenses."

Public officials' response to the Zika virus has also been steeped in denial, Attaran says. The World Health Organization, which in February declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern, says Zika usually results in mild symptoms and claims it's working with the Brazilian government to mitigate the risk to athletes and tourists. The organization also claims Brazil's winter season, beginning in July, should reduce the number of mosquitos in the country.

"It is deplorable, incompetent, and dangerous."

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee's highest-ranking member, Dick Pound, said in February the threat of the Zika virus is a "manufactured crisis" beyond requiring pregnant women to take necessary precautions. "It is deplorable, incompetent and dangerous that WHO, which has both public health expertise and the duty of health protection, is speechlessly deferring to the IOC, which has neither," Attaran writes.

He ends his article with a plea, saying his argument rests not on a lack of love for the Olympics, but on the potential health threat at hand. "But where is the love for the possible victims of a foreseeable global catastrophe: the damaged or dead adults, and the babies for whom — and mark these coldly clinical words carefully — fetal brain disruption sequence is as terrible as it sounds, and extinguishes the hope of a normal life even before it has begun? " he writes. "With stakes like that, bluntly put, these Olympics are no game at all."