Should the Olympics be postponed over Zika fears? WHO and CDC say ‘no’

Olympic rings at the summer games in London, 2012. (Credit: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport/Flickr)

When Rio secured its place in 2009 as the host of the 2016 Olympics, Brazil was a rapidly developing country with a prospering economy. Seven years later, just weeks before the games, Brazil’s economy is spiraling, President Dilma Rousseff is facing impeachment and the capital city has seen an alarming rise in violence and crime.

It’s the Zika virus, however, that has authorities considering delaying the Olympics or even canceling them altogether.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has maintained that there is no public-health justification for postponing or canceling the games, even after a group of 150 health experts wrote an open letter to the agency last Friday calling for the Rio Olympics to be delayed in the name of public health.

Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), echoed the WHO’s statement in Washington last Thursday.

According to the New York Times, the letter to the WHO cited evidence that the Zika virus causes severe birth defects such as microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads, as well as neurological problems in infected adults.

The letter also stressed the possibility of travelers acquiring Zika in Rio and then carrying the virus home to areas unaffected by the virus.

Zika doesn’t spread from person to person, however, like the common cold. The virus can only be transmitted by mosquitoes or through sex and blood transfusions. Since the games will take place in August, in the middle of Brazil’s dry season, the risk of transmission via mosquito will be low.

The experts also noted that increased efforts to wipe out the aedes aegypti mosquito that spreads Zika have been unsuccessful, and infections in Rio de Janeiro have increased.

The WHO has made no direct response to the health experts’ letter, but published a news release the following day.

Since Brazil is one of almost 60 countries and territories currently reporting transmission of the Zika virus by mosquitoes, the agency said in the statement, canceling or changing the location of the Olympics will not significantly alter the global spread of the virus.

“People continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons,” according to the agency’s news release. “The best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public-health travel advice.”

The WHO advises pregnant women not to travel to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission, which includes Rio de Janeiro. The agency also said pregnant women’s sex partners returning from Zika-endemic areas should practice safer sex or abstain throughout the pregnancy.

Some of those arguing for a delay want to move the location of the Olympics completely, much like Major League Baseball moved a two-game series from Puerto Rico to Miami because of Zika concerns last month. Even some athletes, including the world’s third-ranked golfer, Rory McIlroy, have said they’re considering pulling out of the games because of the virus.

The concerns are understandable. Zika is a relatively new pathogen in this part of the world, and there is still a lot about the virus that researchers don’t understand. But will moving the Olympics make a difference when the virus has already spread like wildfire to nearly every region of the continent the aedes aegypti mosquito can reach?

As of now, it does not seem too likely the Games will be canceled altogether. Whether the Olympics will follow its current timeline, however, and whether the 500,000-some attendees will abide by the safety measures proposed, remains to be seen.


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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at