By Conor Bryant
A letter signed by over 200 scientists called the World Health Organization (WHO) to move or postpone the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro due to the ongoing epidemic of Zika in Brazil. WHO responded by saying the Games in Rio does not pose a threat big enough to warrant moving the Games. To address the question of whether the Olympics should be moved, epidemiologist Mikkel Quam is using a mathematical model to estimate the chances of athletes and spectators getting bitten by an infected mosquito during a three week stay in Rio in August. The results are surprisingly low.
The mosquito population in Brazil will go way down due to the winter months in Brazil spanning from July to September. He suggests 1 in 31,000 foreigners will be infected at the Games in August. With an estimated 500,000 foreign attendees, this predicts 16 cases that may potentially spread the virus to other countries. Attendees are much more likely to contract the flu or food poisoning during their stay.
Alessandro Vespignani, Northeastern University, suggests the pollution of the water ought to be a bigger concern for athletes and travelers. He also suggests that the real concern is not the number of cases of Zika, but where it will be spread. In Vespignani’s model, keeping the games in Rio does not seem to change the course of his epidemic model.
On the contrary, Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, suggests that hosting the Games in a country where there is an epidemic is ethically dubious. We simply don’t know enough about the Zika virus to assume it will behave like other known viruses. For example, we do not know how long Zika lingers in the body, or how susceptible it is to sexual transmission. He claims the stakes are too high to allow the Games to go forth.
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