Postpone or move Olympics to prevent Zika 'catastrophe,' professor urges

Story highlights

  • The Olympic Games begin August 5 in Rio de Janeiro
  • Amir Attaran is sounding an alarm over the Zika outbreak there
  • The Games will go on, the International Olympic Committee says

(CNN)With the Zika outbreak widening in Brazil, a leading Canadian public health professor says the summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro should be postponed or moved to prevent "a foreseeable global catastrophe" resulting in the deaths of adults and in babies born with malformed heads.

"Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil's outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago. Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession," University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran wrote in the Harvard Public Health Review.
    Attaran's stance adds to the chorus of growing concerns over the Summer Games being held in Brazil, where the mosquito-borne virus is flourishing despite widespread public health attempts to stop it. The Zika virus has been shown to cause a rare birth defect known to result in babies born with abnormally small heads and other neurological problems.
    The Olympics begin in less than three months, with the opening ceremony set for August 5. The Paralympics are scheduled for mid-September.
    The International Olympic Committee said Thursday that there are no plans to change the Games' location and that officials are working closely with officials with the World Health Organization and the Brazilian government to monitor the situation.
    "I want to reassure you that the government is working very closely with the international Olympic movement, with the local organizing committee, supported by the WHO, to make sure we have a very good work plan to target the mosquito and to make sure that people who will come here either as visitors or athletes will get the maximum protection they need," IOC spokesman Andrew Mitchell said.
    He added, "We are working with our partners in Rio on measures to deal with the pools of stagnant water around the Olympic venues, where the mosquitoes breed, to minimize the risk of visitors coming into contact with them."
    The IOC said in a statement Thursday, "We have seen the great progress being made in Rio de Janeiro and we remain confident about the success of the Olympic Games in August."
    The World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization issued a statement that didn't address Attaran's concerns about moving the Games or postponing them. Rather, the groups reiterated suggestions for how travelers can protect themselves from the virus, including using insect repellents and practicing safe sex.
    In his article for the Harvard publication, Attaran said that people can debate the extent to which holding the Games in Brazil will accelerate the Zika problem around the world but that it is clear the virus will spread.
    He cited the Games' own charter, which mentions "social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
    "But how socially responsible or ethical is it to spread disease?" Attaran wrote. "But for the Games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now? Of course not: mass migration into the heart of an outbreak is a public health no-brainer.
    "And given the choice between accelerating a dangerous new disease or not -- for it is impossible that the Games will slow Zika down -- the answer should be a no-brainer for the Oympic organizers, too. Putting sentimentality aside, clearly the Rio 2016 Games must not proceed."
    Attaran concluded by saying that the Games are a much-loved event around the world and that he understood that sentiment. "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?
    "With stakes like that, bluntly put, these Olympics are no game at all."
    In an interview with CNN, he reiterated his comments, saying the Games should be moved, not canceled.
    Others have echoed Attaran's concerns, including New York University bioethecist Art Caplan, who told CNN that Brazil shouldn't be "trying to run an Olympics and battle an epidemic at the same time."
    The U.S. Olympic Committee has told athletes to skip the Games if they're concerned about Zika.
    Asked about Attaran's remarks, Patrick Sandusky, the USOC's chief external affairs officer, said, "We don't respond to every article written about an upcoming Games, as you can imagine that would take up every minute of every day. We are looking forward to the Rio Games."
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    Brazil has been at the epicenter of the Zika virus, with infectious disease experts descending on the hardest-hit areas to investigate why it's spreading and why it has resulted in babies being born with microcephaly, a birth defect resulting in small heads and underdeveloped brains. They are also looking into the link between the virus and neurological disorders in fetuses, newborns, infants and adults. This includes trying to quantify what the risk is for pregnant women and others.