The World Health Organization has rejected a recommendation from more than 100 prominent doctors and researchers that the Brazil Olympics be delayed or relocated because of the dangers posed to international public health by the Zika virus.
“We make this call despite the widespread fatalism that the Rio 2016 Games are inevitable or ‘too big to fail,’ ” the writers said in the letter addressed to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. “Our greater concern is for global health. The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before.”
The letter shows a growing gap within the medical field on what to do about the Games. On Thursday, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “There is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics.”
The CDC’s current recommendation is that pregnant women should not travel to areas where the virus is spreading and that men with the virus who have pregnant partners should use condoms when having sex for the duration of the pregnancy.
“We’re working closely with the USOC and Brazilian health authorities, and will update our guidance if needed,” Frieden said in a statement in response to the new letter.
The WHO released a statement saying that based on its current assessment, “canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.”
The organization noted that Brazil is one of almost 60 countries that have reported continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes.
“People continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons. The best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health travel advice,” the WHO said.
The International Olympic Committee has said it has no plans to cancel or postpone the Games.
The doctors were wrong saying that the games were “too big to fail.” Canceling the games would be an economic blow to Brazil, already reeling from a political and economic crisis. All told, Brazil is spending about $20 billion in public and private investment on everything from infrastructure projects (stadiums, new roads, bridges, etc.), to security (about $1 billion), to concessions and housing for athletes. Some of that is reimbursed by the International Olympic Committee and the host committee through the sales of broadcast rights and sponsorships.
The Olympics are hardly an athletic competition. It is a corporate showcase where multinationals pay billions for the privilege of having their company name associated with an event watched by several hundred million people around the globe.
Given that, what else would you expect the WHO, Brazil, and the IOC to say?
The threat of Zika has already impacted attendance of the games. But this is the kind of publicity the Rio organizers can do without. The traveling public is nervous enough about going to certain countries where Zika is becoming a problem. Hearing that more than 100 scientists are warning against going to the Olympics will only cause more tourists to cancel their plans and stay closer to home.