Will the Olympics Put the World at Risk for Zika?

zika virus
Science & Medicine

The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern over the Olympics taking place in Rio this summer due to the Zika outbreak. They will be holding an emergency panel this month to discuss the pros and cons of going ahead with the Olympics in its original location this August.

Nyka Alexander, a WHO spokesperson, told Reuters, “The Emergency Committee meeting will consider the situation in Brazil, including the question of the Olympics.” However, Alexander reminded the press that while WHO can discuss the situation and make recommendations, it cannot mandate stopping, postponing or changing the location of the Olympics.

Nearly 200 scientists have signed a letter stating that hosting the Olympics in Brazil would put the world at risk for a global Zika outbreak. However, many officials from WHO have stated independently that they don’t feel there is enough of a risk to warrant a cancellation or a movement of the games.

Mikkel Quam, an epidemiologist, used a mathematical formula to attempt to predict how many spectators and athletes would contract Zika. In order to calculate correctly, he used statistics from another outbreak in Brazil around the same time of the year. Quam admitted that even he was surprised at how low the risk actually is for contracting Zika.

According to Quam, only 4 percent of people attending the games will be bitten by a mosquito, and statistically, even fewer will contract Zika from the bite. It should also be noted that August is winter in Brazil, therefore fewer mosquitos will be out and about during the Olympics.

Adam Cole and Ryan Kellman/NPR
Adam Cole and Ryan Kellman/NPR

Although it is up to each athlete if they wish to attend the Olympics, it is not expected that many will drop out due to the risk.

While the risk is low for most people, it has been recommended that pregnant women or those trying to conceive stay away from the Olympic games in order to protect their unborn child from the devastating life-long consequences of Zika, which include microcephaly.

WHO has advised that all athletes who are within child bearing age to take extra precaution in wearing mosquito repellent during their time in Brazil. Those who visit Brazil should also have sex with a condom for three weeks after their return to their home countries.