Barbara Barker is an award-winning sports features writer and columnist who has covered sports in New York for
Phew. The World Health Organization has spoken. Apparently, unless you are already pregnant or your partner is pregnant and you plan on having unprotected sex, you should feel pretty darn safe traveling to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympics in August.
Yes, the Games will soldier on, albeit with a few more feature stories on bug spray, condoms and mosquito netting than we usually encounter. After a telephone meeting of its “emergency committee,” the World Health Organization announced on Tuesday that it had “concluded that there is a very low risk of further international spread of Zika virus as a result of the Olympics and Paralympic Games.”
This is pretty much the same thing they said a couple months ago, though perhaps they apparently felt the need to study the subject again, given that it seems that every other day a high-profile athlete is voicing concern about going to Brazil or announcing plans in People magazine to freeze their sperm.
Because, when you think about it, it’s easy to see why some athletes might be worried. In many cases, Zika causes flulike symptom that last only a few days, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, it also can lead to microcephaly — which causes small heads and severe developmental issues — in the babies of infected mothers.
And, according to some public health experts, it’s not just the athletes who should be worried about the fact that in less than six weeks some 10,500 competitors and more than 500,000 tourists from 206 countries are expected to converge on the country that is considered ground zero for the virus.
“In reality, these are the Olympics of brain damage. At least that’s what it looks like to me,” said Amir Attaran, a public health and law professor at the University of Ottawa, In a May 11 article in the Harvard Public Health Review, Attaran urged the IOC to cancel or move the Games. “The Olympics are big business, period.” Attaran said in an interview last week. “Greed is being picked over the health of children worldwide.”
Attaran said he served as an adviser to the Major League Baseball Players Association when they made their decision not to travel to Puerto Rico for a game last month because of concerns about the virus. He also was one of 150 doctors, scientists and bioethicists who wrote an open letter to the World Health Organization in May, calling for the Olympics to be postponed or moved.
On Tuesday, WHO officials said the risk for contracting the disease in August, which is midwinter in Rio de Janeiro, is relatively low. They also noted that travel to the Olympics accounts for only a fraction of the travel already occurring to and from Zika-infected countries.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, who has been leading the WHO response to Zika, said in a news briefing Tuesday that a mass gathering like the World Cup or a pilgrimage to Mecca can “amplify a disease or can raise the risk that it will spread to other countries. You can’t dismiss that, but the committee felt there should be a much lower risk from the Olympics.” He also noted that WHO expects Zika to spread in Northern Argentina and the southern United States whether or not the Games take place.
Attaran, however, points out that concern about transmission of the disease is not limited to mosquitoes in that it can be transmitted sexually and no one really knows how long after contracting the disease one has to wait to have sex before it’s no longer transmissible. He added that the Olympics are a unique event in that it brings together participants from all corners of the world, including countries with residents who would be very unlikely to travel to Brazil for tourism or business reasons. He called the Olympics a “Noah’s Arc” of events, saying that because nearly every country was sending a representative that it had a unique ability to accelerate the spread of the disease.
“The argument that it is going to spread anyway is a hard one to accept,” Attaran said. “We don’t know that much about the virus right now. We need all the time we can get. When you have a raging forest fire, what do you do? Do you throw water on it? Or gasoline? This is gasoline.”
And so with six weeks to go before the Olympics Opening Ceremony, there does not seem to be a consensus in the public health community about the risk it presents. There does, however, seem to be a growing concern outside of it.
John Speraw, the coach of the United States men’s indoor volleyball team, has announced that he is freezing his sperm to use for a future pregnancy. Spain’s Pau Gasol, an NBA star, also said he is considering doing so, though he also is considering skipping the Games altogether. United States soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo insists she will not leave her hotel room, except to practice and play. A handful of prominent golfers, including Adam Scott and Vijay Singh, have said they will not go to Rio and Jordan Spieth, the winner of last year’s U.S. Open, said he has not made up his mind. Player after player has taken themselves out of contention for the U.S. basketball team, though none has specifically cited Zika as the reason. And on Friday, U.S. News and World report ran an editorial advocating from a doctor at John Hopkins that the Games be canceled.
Something tells me we’re going to hear a lot more about this in the coming weeks.