Some health experts are calling for this summer’s Olympic Games to be postponed or moved from Rio de Janeiro due to the ongoing Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, but other health experts disagree that the move is necessary. Zika infection in pregnant women has been shown to be a cause of serious brain abnormalities in babies, including the birth defect microcephaly. The infection has also been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults.
A group of 125 prominent scientists, doctors and medical ethicists recently sent a letter to World Health Organization Director Dr. Margaret Chan saying that the games should be moved or postponed to safeguard the thousands of athletes, staff and reporters scheduled to attend the games. The group cited new findings about the link between the Zika virus and conditions such as microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome as the reason why the change should be implemented. Art Caplan, director of the NYU Division of Medical Ethics and co-author of the letter, said the group wanted to spark a dialogue about the risks involved and encourage health officials unrelated to the Olympics to comment on the matter.
The experts fear that the Rio Olympics travelers will enable the transmission of the virus to other parts of the globe yet untouched by the infections. They also claim that the current mosquito-killing programs in Rio are ineffective, citing statistics that show that the rate of dengue fever infections, which is spread by the same mosquitoes that spread Zika virus, were up markedly in 2016 compared to the previous two years.
However, a leading U.S. health official has said that the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil does not pose enough of a threat to warrant canceling or putting off the Rio Olympics. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that evidence is lacking for a public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics when he spoke during a luncheon at The National Press Club in Washington.
The CDC director did call on Congress to deliver the funding needed to fight Zika globally. The Obama Administration recently requested $1.9 billion in emergency Zika funding. The U.S. Senate has voted to allocate $1.1 billion for the effort, while the House of Representatives has promised about $622 million.
Frieden also called for Congress to take action to protect pregnant women in the United States and its territories, such as Puerto Rico, from Zika infections. Health officials reported last week that there are 279 pregnant women in the United States and its territories who have tested positive for Zika.