Should the 2016 Olympics Be Canceled?

Spread of Zika virus
via Wikipedia

​Amid the rapid spread of the ZIka virus across Latin America, some have asked if the 2016 Summer Olympic Games should be canceled. The Olympic Games are scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro this August. However, preparations for the Olympic Games have already been problematic for several reasons. Corruption scandals, protests, and water pollution in Rio are some of the most serious issues, but the Zika virus in Brazil has started a conversation about the possibility of canceling the Olympic Games.

The Zika virus was first noticed in Brazil last year, but it has spread quickly there for two reasons: first, because the virus is new in the western hemisphere, and therefore, the population has no immunity to the disease; and second, because the mosquito that carries the disease is ubiquitous in Brazil. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, the type of mosquito that is responsible for transmitting Zika and similar mosquito-borne viruses including dengue and yellow fever, often lives inside homes and bites mostly during the day. It can lay eggs in a tiny amount of stagnant water, including saucers under houseplants, pet dishes, and water that easily collects outside, such as in bromeliad plants and on plastic tarps. 

Concern over Zika has grown because of the suspected link between Zika and cases of microcephaly in newborn babies. However, the link has not yet been proven. For the time being, pregnant women have been advised to avoid travel to areas where the Zika virus is currently spreading.

 

Should the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro be canceled? According to the Olympic Committee, no. Here are five reasons that may be cited in not canceling the 2016 Summer Olympic Games due to the Zika virus.

Reasons the Olympics should not be canceled:

1. Cooler weather:

Despite the name "Summer Olympic Games," August is winter in Brazil.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito thrives in hot, wet weather. Therefore, the spread of the virus should slow as summer passes and cooler, drier weather arrives. 

2. Preventing the spread of Zika before the Olympic Games

With the Olympic Games approaching and fear growing over Zika's possible effects on unborn babies, Brazilian officials have been taking the threat very seriously with various measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Currently, the country is focusing on mosquito prevention through the work of the armed forces, who go door to door to eliminate standing water and educate residents about mosquito prevention. In addition, areas where the Olympic Games will take place are being treated to prevent the spread of the virus in those locations.

3. Avoiding Zika during the Olympic Games

Travelers who come for the Olympic Games can prevent the spread of the disease by not getting infected themselves. To do so, they will need to consistently use good prevention measures while in Brazil. This includes using an effective mosquito repellent (see recommendations for mosquito repellents), wearing long-sleeved clothing and shoes (instead of sandals or flip-flops), staying in accommodations with air-conditioning and screened windows, and eliminating standing water in one's hotel room.

 

Preventing mosquito bites in Brazil is something that travelers should already be aware of. While the Zika virus may be new to Brazil, the country is already home to mosquito-borne diseases including dengue and yellow fever, and there was an epidemic of dengue in 2015. These diseases have more serious symptoms and can even cause death in extreme cases, so travelers should be aware of the potential risk in the areas where they will stay and take precautions when necessary. These diseases are not actively spreading in all parts of Brazil--for example, the CDC does not recommend the yellow fever vaccine for Rio de Janeiro because the disease is not found there.

4. Unanswered questions about Zika's effects

The Zika virus was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization after officials determined that there is a possible link between Zika and the spike in cases of the birth defect microcephaly in Brazil.

However, the link between Zika and microcephaly has been difficult to prove. Brazil's health ministry just released the following statistics: since October 2015, there have been 5,079 suspected cases of microcephaly. Of those, 462 cases had been confirmed, and of the 462 confirmed cases, only 41 have been connected to Zika. Unless a connection between the virus and the increase in microcephaly cases can be proven, it is very unlikely that the Olympic Games would be canceled.

5. Keeping the threat of Zika in perspective

There has been worry that the Zika virus will spread due to infected people returning from the Olympic Games. While this is a real concern, the potential for Zika to spread exists in only some parts of the world. The type of mosquito that carries Zika does not live in cooler climates, so most of the United States and Europe would not be a strong breeding ground for the virus. The virus is already present in large parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, islands of the South Pacific, and now Latin America. People who come from countries where the Aedes species mosquito is present should be particularly careful to prevent mosquito bites while in Rio de Janeiro so that the likelihood of bringing Zika back to their home countries will be minimized.

Because of the potential link between Zika and birth defects, pregnant women are advised against travel to infected areas. Besides the possible effect on fetuses, the symptoms of Zika are fairly mild, especially when compared to similar viruses like dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever, and only about 20% of people who become infected with Zika ever show symptoms.

However, people who travel to Brazil for the Olympic Games should know that how the Zika virus can be transmitted. They may become infected and, if returning to their home country with the virus still present in their system, may spread the disease through being bitten by Aedes species mosquitoes that can then pass the virus on to others. A small number of cases of Zika being transmitted through saliva, sex, and blood have been reported.