Guest Opinion: Olympic Zika fears are overblown
When the Summer Olympics open in Brazil in less than a month, athletes and visitors will have plenty to contend with, from economic and political turmoil to polluted waters and a violent crime wave.
The Zika virus — which has garnered the world’s attention and stirred bitter debate over whether the Rio Games should go on — is far down on any realistic list of concerns. And if public health decisions are to be driven by facts, not fear, the decision to begin the Games on Aug. 5, as scheduled, is reasonable.
Zika is contracted through the bite of an already infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, and in the Southern Hemisphere, August is part of the cooler, drier winter season when mosquito activity slows.
The result? During the past two years, new cases of dengue fever — carried by the same mosquito as Zika — have plummeted in July and August. Zika is so new to Brazil and the Americas there is no comparable history, but Brazil reports that new cases have been declining since their peak in March.
Many Olympic athletes and visitors will be staying in air conditioned hotels and spending time in air conditioned venues. They will have little exposure to dwellings without screens and to standing water where Zika can thrive.
Visitors can help themselves by using repellents and protective clothing. They can better protect others by using condoms because Zika can be sexually transmitted.
Using dengue fever as a proxy and figuring on up to 500,000 Olympic visitors, researchers from Brazil and around the world executed models to predict that about 15 cases of Zika could come out of the two-week Games. This is not the sort of number that should force a delay or a move, as was requested by more than 200 medical experts in a letter to the World Health Organization.
No one, of course, should underplay the danger of Zika, which can cause devastating birth defects. For pregnant women or those trying to become pregnant, science makes staying away a prudent choice. Several athletes, including top-ranked golfers Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, have decided to bow out — a personal judgment that is theirs to make.
But when public health officials give advice on postponing or moving the Olympics — as the WHO did in May, when it recommended going forward — the decision can send either a calming message or a dangerous one.
If countries believe there will be a high price — such as losing major events, or facing travel and trade bans — for letting the world know about outbreaks, they will instead be tempted to keep secrets.
In 2003, China tried to hide its SARS outbreak. In 2014, at least one West African nation downplayed the start of its Ebola outbreak. Such silence could be devastating to worldwide public health.
Postponing or moving the Games because of overblown Zika fears would have been a decision unworthy of a medal.