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11:20 AM

Doctors urging postponement or relocation of Rio Olympics because of Zika

Concerned about the the potential spread of the Zika virus, a Children's Mercy doctor has joined an international effort to postpone or possibly relocate this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“Overall, I think the risk of Zika spreading as a result of the Olympics is low,” said Dr. John Lantos, Director of the Bioethics Center at Children’s Mercy. “But, if it does, the consequences could be many brain-damaged babies. Is it worth it?”

Lantos and 149 other medical experts from around the globe expressed their concern in an open letter to the World Health Organization two weeks ago. The letter presented new findings about the virus — specifically the strain of Zika found in Rio — and urges the organization to reevaluate the situation “in a transparent, evidence-based process in which science, public health, and the spirit of sport come first,” Lantos explained.

World Health Organization officials and other experts, however, counter that the risk in Rio is not only low, it’s little different than the risk found in many countries right now.

“Based on the current assessment of Zika virus circulating in almost 60 countries globally and 39 countries in the Americas,” the WHO said in a statement, “there is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the games.”

The World Health Organization’s statement, written in response to the petition, includes travel advice geared toward public health. Such awareness has been heavily promoted throughout Brazil, according to Dr. Angela Myers, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Mercy.

The Olympics host country has “put in a huge amount of work to eradicate the spread of the virus,” Myers said, particularly through major educational campaigns. Brazil’s government and military have also been conducting direct fumigations of areas know for problem “Aedes” mosquitoes, she noted.

Myers also pointed out that these Olympics will take place during Brazil’s winter season, which decreases the risk of mosquito bites.

The mosquito kills nearly 750,000 people each year. Malaria is the cause for the majority of these deaths, but a Zika outbreak has the Americas scared of this insect. This is how the insect spreads disease to its victims

Lantos said the risk remains because Zika is not just spread by mosquitoes.

“It is also spread by sex,” he said. “And there is a lot of sex at the Olympics, both among athletes and among fans. One Brazilian newspaper reported that Olympic organizers are handing out 450,000 condoms. So, I’m worried.”

Furthermore, Lantos said, “winter weather is unpredictable. Last year, Rio saw more cases of dengue fever, another mosquito-borne disease, in August than in the months of March, April and May combined.”

Myers holds firm to the belief that, according to data available now, “the risk of the spread would not be altered” by postponement of the Olympics.

“The (International Olympic Committee) and WHO and (Centers for Disease Control) have worked closely together,” Myers said, and these efforts will continue.

“They’re going to be doing inspections throughout the Olympic season,” she said, to keep a close eye on the situation and make sure there are no breeding areas left for the Aedes mosquito.

The petition signed by Lantos and others remains open to the signatures of other health experts.

“I chose to sign the letter because I haven’t seen a straightforward assessment of the risk,” Lantos said.

Read the whole story via the Kansas City Star.

Learn more about the Center for Bioethics at Children's Mercy.

Learn more about the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Mercy.