Attaran has hence joined several doctors and public health specialists who claim that the Rio Olympics will cause a global health catastrophe. Researchers believe that the virus hit Brazil in the 2014 World Cup when hundreds of thousands of foreigners visited the country, and since then, up to 1.5 million Zika cases have been suspected.
Attaran said that the viral strain in Brazil is a new, different and more dangerous form of the Zika virus. According to Attaran, Rio de Janeiro is at the heart of the Zika epidemic. The number of suspected Zika cases (26,000) and the incidence rate ( 175 per 100,000 ) are the highest in the country.
The virus is transmitted by mosquitos and sexual intercourse, and it generally leads to birth defects such as babies being born with neurological problems, brain damage or with abnormally small heads.
However, recent studies have revealed that the virus does not only affect pregnant women and those planning on getting pregnant in the near future. It has been associated with life-threatening adult conditions such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which causes the immune system to attack the nervous system leading to paralysis, as well as acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which targets the brain and spinal cord. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine that prevents Zika infection, nor a medicine that treats it.
With almost half a million people expected to attend the Olympics, Attaran says the Games would speed up the global spread of Zika after visitors and athletes return to their homes.
"All it takes is one infected traveler… A few viral introductions of that kind in a few countries, or maybe continents, would make a full-blown global health disaster," Attaran said. "Scientists can disagree on how much the mass migration of 500,000 foreigners will accelerate the virus’s global spread and make the pandemic worse- but none can possible argue that it will slow it down or make things better."
The doctor adds that holding the games violates the Olympics’ aim to create social responsibility and respect for ethical principles. "But how socially responsible or ethical is it to spread disease? Sports fans who are wealthy enough to visit Rio’s Games choose Zika’s risks for themselves, but when some of them return home infected, their fellow citizens bear the risk too," he said.
Attaran suggests that alternative venues be considered, which should not be an impossible task considering London, Beijing, Athens and Sydney still have usable Olympic facilities.
The World Health Organization has already declared Zika to be a public health emergency, yet it has not demanded any changes in the Olympics agenda. The WHO released a statement on May 12 including guidance on travel and prevention. The WHO said that it is working with the Pan American Health Organization to provide the Government of Brazil and the Olympic committees with advice on how to mitigate the risk of athletes and visitors contracting Zika virus during the Olympics.
Nonetheless, the IOC has assured that the Games will proceed as planned, unless the WHO demands otherwise. IOC president Thomas Bach has guaranteed that appropriate measures will be taken to protect athletes and spectators at the Rio Olympics.
Everyone is anticipating the outcomes of the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of WHO, which is being held from May 23 to 28 in Geneva.
According to Think Progress, the host city for the Olympics faces several problems apart from the virus. Water contamination, infrastructure collapse, human rights violations, as well as alarming police brutality also ought to discourage tourists from attending the games.