Zika virus

Zika virus threat hangs over the Rio Olympics

The Olympics have only ever been cancelled because of war. The IOC may well say this year’s will go ahead, but athletes and tourists should be alert to the WHO’s guidance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 12:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 12:20am

A breakthrough by Chinese researchers in the search for a direct link between the Zika virus and brain and other abnormalities in newborns has added to pressure on Olympic and health authorities in Brazil and Switzerland.

Rio de Janeiro, epicentre of the Zika epidemic and the host city for the Olympic Games beginning in August, is struggling to bring the mosquito-borne virus under control even as it grapples with domestic crises that have led to the suspension of the president pending an impeachment trial. In Lausanne, Switzerland, the International Olympic Committee insists there is no reason to postpone or cancel the games. So the eyes and ears of the world are now trained on updates from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva of independent health-protection guidance for thousands of athletes and up to 500,000 expected visitors.

Chinese researchers find direct link of Zika virus to brain shrinkage and cell death in infected mice

In another development, Professor Dr Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa, writing in the Harvard Public Health Review, says holding the Games in Rio could fast track the spread of Zika to become a full-blown public health disaster after visitors and athletes return to their homes. He has joined other scientists and medical experts arguing for the Games to be put off.

The Chinese scientists have shown for the first time that the Zika virus can enter the brains of mice fetuses and stunt their development. The WHO has already declared Zika to be a public health emergency. Late last week it updated advice to Games athletes and visitors to protect themselves from mosquito bites and practise safe sex or abstain during their stay and for at least four weeks after their return and promised further updates.

Attaran says that in Rio this year, insect-transmitted disease is up 600 per cent despite stepped up mosquito control efforts. Even if such diseases do decline over the southern hemisphere winter, that is a worry. WHO director general Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun has insisted in the past that athletes and fans should hold no fear about travelling to Rio. But Zika could now be Chan’s greatest challenge in a long career as a public health official, including bird flu and Sars in Hong Kong. Under her leadership the WHO has been criticised for a tardy response to the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa. There is little argument that politically influenced regional and national WHO appointments were unhelpful to the important early response to Ebola. The Olympics have only ever been cancelled because of war. The IOC may well say they will go ahead, but athletes and tourists should be alert to the WHO’s guidance.