Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released their public health advice regarding the Olympics and Zika virus. Based on their assessment, they stated that changing the location of the Olympics wouldn’t really change the spread of the virus since either way, there will be thousands of people travelling between Zika affected countries. While Brazil is definitely one of the more prominently affected areas for the Zika outbreak, it’s only one of 60 countries that have reported transmission of the virus by mosquitos.
Based on the WHO press release, the best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health travel advice. There is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the games.
The WHO travel advice for anyone considering travel to the Olympics includes:
· Pregnant women not to travel to areas with ongoing Zik virus transmission. Their sex partners returning from areas with circulating virus should practise safer sex or abstain throughout pregnancy
· Follow travel advice provided by their countries’ health authorities
· Whenever possible, protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellents and light coloured clothing
Practice safer sex or abstain during their stay and for at least 8 weeks after their return
· Choose air conditioned accommodation where windows and doors are kept closed
· Avoid visiting areas in cities and towns with no piped water or poor sanitation where the risk of being bitten by mosquitos is higher
With the Olympics and Paralympics kicking off in just 2 short months, many health experts have petitioned to have the games cancelled or postponed in fear of the virus spreading further and affecting poorer countries with inadequate health systems. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently as I now have a background in both high performance sport and public health. I happen to know some of the canoe/kayak athletes competing in Rio and have been following both their journeys to qualifying and the epidemiological spread of Zika.
From a public health perspective, it appears to be a bit of a disaster. Despite the fact that Zika has already been transmitted in 60 countries across the world, having thousands and thousands of people travelling to a high risk area and then travelling home again is going to nothing but spread the virus further. Yes people travel globally every day and the virus will spread that way regardless. But this is an event that attracts thousands of people from almost every country on the planet. Zika isn’t the only public health issue with the Rio Olympics. It’s important to remember that money being funnelled towards the games could have been used to help develop infrastructure, better schools and housing and to fund social programs that are so badly needed by the Brazilian population. And what about spending some of that money on their health care system to help support the families who have already been affected by Zika or have given birth to children with microcephaly?
From an athlete’s perspective, there is no way the games should be postponed or cancelled. These athletes have worked so hard to qualify. For many of them, it’s a life-long dream come true to compete at the games. I can’t imagine being stripped of that opportunity. I think it’s the athletes’ jobs to be informed about the risks, to be responsible for taking the necessary precautions to protect themselves and to choose for themselves whether or not they participate. Unfortunately, the health of our global population could potentially be reliant on these few taking the appropriate precautions during the games and once they return home. I think some responsibility also lies within the International Olympic committee to ensure that athletes are equipped with all the resources they need to stay safe. Bug repellent, air conditioned dormitories, condoms, etc.
If I were the WHO what would I recommend? It’s hard to say. While the Olympics and Paralympics are a really huge event, it’s definitely not the only international event drawing thousands of people that will be happening this summer. I’m not really sure they were ever in a position to actually cancel the games. I think they have done their job; they have provided athletes and the public a list of recommendations and have outlined the risks clearly. This is true for anyone travelling to one of the 60 countries affected. There has to be some personal responsibility involved in protecting ourselves. My hope is that these recommendations are practiced and the spread after the games isn’t substantial. I also hope that Zika doesn’t taint the Olympic experience for those athletes who have worked so hard to get there.