Five Ring Circus

In a mere 65 days, almost 10,000 athletes from 204 countries will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the start of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. An additional 500,000 spectators are expected to file into Rio’s athletic venues, walk its crowded streets, tour its famous monuments and seamy favelas, and frolic on its fabled beaches. Over a hundred thousand more – athletes, staff and tourists – will visit Rio the following month for the 2016 Paralympic Games.

I love watching the Olympic Games. I will likely spend those two weeks in August with every free hour glued to the television watching the world’s greatest athletes compete in sports from archery to wrestling. I also love Rio de Janeiro, a city that rightfully deserves the Portuguese-language nickname Ciudad Maravillosa, or Marvelous City. That said, I worry that these games will be an unmitigated disaster.

There are a lot of reasons to be worried about these Games. There is, for example, the fact that many of the athletic venues being built for South America’s first Olympics are not yet finished; it will require a herculean effort by the Rio Games organizers to complete them in time. There is also the current political crisis unfolding in Brazil, with populist President Dilma Rousseff recently impeached and placed on trial for corruption in what many of her supporters are calling a bloodless coup.

There is also the ongoing and still unfolding doping scandal, with Russia fighting claims that it engaged in systematic efforts to hide evidence of widespread abuse of performance enhancing drugs by Russian athletes at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. So serious are the claims that the International Association of Athletics Federations has suspended Russia’s eligibility to compete in international track and field competitions, including the Rio Games, until that country shows that it is compliant with the doping rules established by the World Anti-Doping Agency. That doping scandal, however, has again raised questions about corruption among national and international athletic organizations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), including investigations into the decision to award to 2016 Games to Rio.

Surprisingly, none of those problems, crises or scandals matters to me. The same concerns or claims have been raised about nearly international competition in modern history, yet most of those games have gone off without a hitch. What worries me about the Rio Games is something that I have been thinking, writing and talking about a lot of late: Zika.

If you listed to my radio commentary just a couple of weeks ago, you already know about the threat that Zika poses. A mosquito-borne virus that is now epidemic in Brazil (as well as nearly every other country in the Western hemisphere), Zika is associated with any number of serious diseases. Children born to Zika-infected mothers, for example, are at elevated risk for a serious birth defect known as microcephaly. Older adults infected with this virus may also develop a serious neurological condition known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which can result in muscle weakness, paralysis and even death. So serious is the Zika outbreak that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Americans “consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission.”

As many as 1.5 million Brazilians have already contracted Zika. Rio de Janeiro and the surrounding state is one of the hot spots of viral transmission in that country, with nearly 1 in 500 Cariocas (as residents of Rio are known) having been infected to date. The spread of that disease also remains unchecked, with Rio’s own officials reporting a three-fold increase in the spread of mosquito borne diseases like Zika and dengue this past year. This is largely a result of Rio’s crumbling public infrastructure and recent cuts to its existing public health programs (including a 20% cut to mosquito control programs), and something that cannot be easily fixed. This makes the coming influx of foreign competitors and tourists a ticking time bomb.

Should current rates of transmission remain unchanged, we can predict that thousands of Olympic athletes and spectators will be infected. Many (if not most) of those afflicted will likely return home before they even begin to show symptoms, spreading the Zika virus to all corners of the globe in just a few weeks time. While not all of those cases will spark local outbreaks, some might (particularly in warmer regions of the world where mosquitos capable of spreading the virus already exist).

So serious is this concern that last week nearly 200 physicians, researchers, and public health experts (myself included) wrote a letter to World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan calling for the Rio Olympics to be moved or delayed. Not surprisingly, given the economic impact that moving or delaying the Games would have on Rio and its travel industry, on the IOC, on the national teams and athletic delegations, and (most importantly) on the many multinational corporate sponsors who benefit from free advertising during the Olympics, our call for prudence and caution was rejected.

Economic shortsightedness has once again ruled the day, placing millions (and even billions) of people at risk. Moreover, the WHO has abrogated its responsibilities to protect the public health in favor of maintain its financially lucrative (and largely secret) economic partnership with the iOC. It’s not a question of if but when Zika becomes a global crisis. But at least we will know whom to blame … that competition has already been won.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on June 2, 2016, and is available on the WAMC website.]


About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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