NY Travel Clinic

Solo: As of now, I wouldn’t go to Olympics over Zika

Should I Stay or Should I Go: People Still Debate the Future of the 2016 Olympics

Athletes, tourists, retailers, media outlets and, well, just about everyone else, are waiting to see if the 2016 Olympics will turn into a colossal game of musical chairs.

While some athletes are steadfast in refusing to go, others are just as determined to be in Rio in August.Even the researchers, scientists, public health officials and economic types can’t agree.

Hope Solo

“If I had to make a choice today, I wouldn’t go to the Olympics.” American goalkeeper, Hope Solo, made her fears known to Sports Illustrated recently.

Unlike other events which make up the games, soccer is being held in cities away from Rio. The cities include Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Manaus — and some have higher rates of Zika than Rio

“Based on what researchers now know, women can still have a healthy baby later on — as long as they don’t get pregnant, or are pregnant, while infected with the disease,” says Dr. Celine Grounder.

Dr. Grounder, an infectious disease specialist in New York City, suggests waiting at least 30 days — and preferably three months — after recovering from Zika before trying to get pregnant.

Dr. Grounder’s expertise and knowledge are beyond reproach. Her advice is wise and any woman pregnant, or thinking about becoming pregnant, should consider her travel choices.

But things are not as cut-and-dried at the larger level and with a larger question: Should the games stay in Brazil, and on time, or should they be moved elsewhere or postponed.

Qualified researchers can’t agree.

Move the Games

The Zika problem in Brazil is not ending. The outbreak is flourishing in Rio de Janeiro. Studies are piling up that show Zika is not just connected to pediatric microcephaly, but also adult afflictions like Guillain-Barre syndrome and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis; both of which are debilitating and possibly fatal.

To put it in regular words: Zika is more dangerous — and the outbreak more widespread — that even the best scientists thought just a short time ago.

That is leading researchers to advise postponing, or moving, the games.

There is precedence for flexibility. The 1976 Winter Olympics were transferred, and the ‘94 Winter Olympics changed the regular schedule. The IOC decided in 2014 that the Olympics should be shared between countries. Parceling out sporting events between nations could turn Zika’s negative into a positive: the first truly Global Olympics.

Two Reasons to Postpone or Move

Rio is affected by Zika more than anybody expected. Earlier assumptions of safety are obsolete. Rio’s suspected Zika cases are the highest of any state in Brazil and its Zika incidence rate is fourth worst. Rio is not on the peripheries of the outbreak but within its heart.

Many observers believe that Zika will follow the pattern of other mosquito-borne illnesses and drop during the South American winter. That may be true. No one knows because Rio has never gone through a winter with Zika.

Secondly, while Brazil’s Zika will eventually spread globally given enough time, it doesn’t help to speed that up. It can’t help that an estimated 500,000 foreign tourist flood Rio for the Games, possibly get infected and return home where both Aedes mosquitoes and sexual transmission can set up new outbreaks.

All it takes is for one infected traveler to facilitate a full-blown health disaster globally. Scientists may disagree on how much of an impact the migration of 500,000 foreigners will speed up the virus’s spread. None can argue that the spread will slow down — or be made better — by the sea of travelers.

Leave The Games Alone

150 public health specialists from throughout the world believe Brazil’s Olympics should be delayed. They have even sent an open letter to the World Health Organization where they demonstrate the potential of a Zika pandemic in Brazil is expanding.

The credentials of the scientists aren’t in question. But they do not refer to the financial costs that could be incurred from postponing the event. Not only Brazil’s economy be hit, but so would the finances of athletes and sporting federations globally.

While that may sound bizarre, and even crass, observation, remember our societies weigh serious health risks against money all the time.

One of the greatest sources of danger to human life in affluent countries is not terrorism, aircraft crashes or illicit drugs. The biggest threat is car wrecks.

The safest way to reduce car wrecks is to eliminate road traffic. Shut down the roads; ban all vehicles. But no one is going to do that — no one is arguing that we should do that. Everyone recognizes there are economic and social benefits from traveling by car.

Short of closing down the highways, there are many investments we could find — along with restrictions to impose — that would make car travel safer. Some we do. Others we don’t, and we don’t because the fixes would be prohibitively expensive.

That is exactly the trade-off we make between life and money.

Look at it another way. Would the signers of WHO’s letter argue that it would be unethical to proceed with the Games if we knew it would only result in one — just one — additional person in the entire world being at risk of getting Zika? Of course not — that would be an overreaction.

What this hypothetical case shows is that human life is always weighed against money.

The important question is: How significant is the potential risk and how big is the likely cost.

Stay or Go?

The point is there is not a single correct answer. Instead, it is that we should expect the authorities to man up and have the courage to estimate costs and benefits when making their decisions.

Regardless of which particular outcome we want as individuals, it is this process that will protect the broader public interest.