125 scientists rebuke WHO: Do your job and get the Olympics out of Brazil

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Should the 2016 Olympics get moved out of Brazil, which finds itself in the midst of an epidemic of the Zika virus and under serious criticism over the polluted waters in which some events will be held? A Toronto professor wrote earlier this month in the Harvard Public Health Review that keeping the Olympics in Brazil would create an epidemiological disaster, accelerating the spread of Zika across the globe faster than resources could catch up to it.

“[W]hile Brazil’s Zika inevitably will spread globally — given enough time, viruses always do — it helps nobody to speed that up,” wrote Dr. Amir Attaran. “Scientists can disagree on how much the mass migration of 500,000 foreigners will accelerate the virus’s global spread and make the pandemic worse—but none can possibly argue that it will slow it down or make things better.

In response, the World Health Organization declared that there was no need to move the Olympics, and that a “targeted approach” in Rio de Janeiro would be sufficient:

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Despite concerns about the spread of the Zika virus through the Olympic Games, the World Health Organization (WHO) did not advise that the games be moved from Rio De Janeiro, which has had high rates of Zika infection.

WHO Director Margaret Chan spoke to reporters today, ahead of the World Health Assembly next week.

“You don’t want to bring a standstill to the world’s movement of people,” Chan said today in the press briefing.

Not even through a zone with a viral outbreak that creates such significant medical problems? Attaran got backup today from 125 doctors and scientists, who sent a letter to Dr. Chan that demanded more action from WHO than just cheerleading for the Olympics. And it’s not just Zika that has them worried:

A group of 125 prominent scientists, doctors and medical ethicists released a letter 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. …

New information about the Zika virus was cited by the group in the letter as an additional reason to postpone or move the games. The disease has been found to cause the birth defect microcephaly in pregnant women and has also been linked to an immunological reaction called Guillain-Barré syndrome.

“That while Zika’s risk to any single individual is low, the risk to a population is undeniably high. Currently, Brazil’s government reports 120,000 probable Zika cases, and 1,300 confirmed cases of microcephaly (with another 3,300 under investigation), which is above the historical level of microcephaly,” the group said.

The group of experts also pointed out that current mosquito-killing programs in Rio were ineffective and that when they looked at dengue fever, which is spread by the same mosquitoes that spread Zika virus, the infections were up markedly in 2016 compared to the previous two years.

The signatories specifically rebuked Chan for the earlier WHO response, and suggested that her conclusions were political rather than scientific. It might be time for “a change in leadership” to refocus on science, the letter declared:

The group also claimed the WHO had a conflict of interest due to a decades-long partnership with the International Olympic Committee and said previous statements by WHO officials have been “troubling.”

“To prejudge that ‘there’s not going to be a lot of problems,’ before reviewing this evidence [on Zika virus effects] is extremely inappropriate of WHO, and suggests that a change in leadership may be required to restore WHO’s credibility,” the group wrote.

Well, the International Olympic Committee is one of the club of global do-good organizations to which WHO and the UN also belong. The IOC has lots of money invested in Rio, and perhaps even more prestige. The water quality for Olympic events is horrendous, and was that way when the IOC awarded the games to Rio. They’ve been warned about it repeatedly, and are shrugging off the serious health risks to the athletes that will compete there. If that’s the case, then why would they second-guess their award over Zika’s threat to the attendees? WHO probably feels the need to give the IOC some political cover, even at the expense of epidemiological common sense.

In fact, one of the co-authors of the letter told ABC that he suspects that very dynamic in play:

“What we’re really focused on is can we have transparent, open, frank, televised, out-in-the-open discussion with experts” unconnected to the Olympics, Caplan said. “We think WHO is close to the IOC. … They work together a lot.”

Perhaps not enough, or perhaps too much. At any rate, it’s no longer just Attaran declaring the obvious — that sending 500,000 people into and then out of the Zika zone will create an explosion of the spread of the virus. WHO, the IOC, and the participating nations have now been warned by more than one hundred scientists that it’s a very bad idea to conduct the Olympics in an epidemic zone. So far, those warnings are falling on deaf ears.

What has the USOC done about it? They’re issuing long-sleeve shirts, long pants … and condoms:

What about the CDC? No worries, they declared yesterday:

The widespread Zika virus outbreak in Brazil does not pose enough of a threat to warrant canceling or putting off the Olympic Games set to be held in Rio de Janeiro in August, a leading U.S. health official said on Thursday .

“There is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a luncheon at The National Press Club in Washington.

Ironically, Frieden made this claim at the same time that he argued that Congress’ plan to spend $1.1 billion to fight Zika as inadequate. “That window is closing,” Frieden declared about the prospects of preparing for the mosquito season in the southern US. Won’t travel back and forth from Rio for the Olympics provide a much larger window? One hundred and twenty-five scientists say yes.

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