With the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro quickly approaching, the controversy over whether to hold the games in one of the countries most impacted by the Zika virus is heating up.
It was important for Clark University Philosophy Department Chair Patrick Derr to draw attention to the risk Zika poses by adding his name to a petition urging the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone or move the Games due to the virus.
“The institutional response to Zika is like the early years of the AIDS pandemic all over again,” he says about its potential to harm. “Reading the Zika news now is like reading Randy Shilts’ acclaimed history of the AIDS epidemic, ‘And the Band Played On.’ The names and the dates have changed, but the plot hasn’t. The Titanic is sinking, the crew is in denial, and nobody will do anything until it is too late to matter.”
Derr, along with the petition’s more than 140 other international expert physician, bioethicist and scientist signatories, sent the request for a “fresh, evidence-based assessment of Zika and the Games, and its recommendations for travelers” May 27, according to The Washington Post. It cites the WHO’s own declaration of Zika as Public Health Emergency of International Concern, along with other scientific findings to justify the request “in the name of public health.”
The petition says Brazil, the host country, has 120,000 Zika cases, with 1,300 confirmed microcephaly cases. Rio de Janeiro state, the location of the games, has experienced 23,000 probable Zika cases — the second-highest number in Brazil.
A day after the petition’s release, the WHO said in response there was “no public health justification” to cancel or postpone the Games.
Derr, who studies medical ethics and health policy among other research areas, taught one of the first seminars on the AIDS virus in the United States at Clark during the mid-1980s. He’ll examine it again this fall along with other world health crises in a First-Year Intensive seminar called “AIDS to Zika: Ethics and Epidemics.”
What’s especially troubling to Derr is that while Zika is primarily spread through Aedes aegypti mosquito bites, it’s also sexually-transmitted — a point mentioned by both the WHO and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the latter of which encourages “enhanced precautions” for travelers headed to Brazil.
“Tourists, athletes, national support staff and media personnel will carry the disease back to their home countries,” he says. “Many of those countries are still Zika free, but have very weak public health systems. It’s unconscionable to permit that.”
Recently, the Boston Public Health Commission discussed local Zika outreach plans for the summer, including working with residents who may travel to Zika-affected areas. It also plans to distribute prevention kits containing mosquito repellant and condoms starting next month.
Doctors and public health officials have witnessed the devastating effects Zika has when transmitted from a pregnant woman to her fetus, including microcephaly and other severe fetal birth defects, some of which the WHO says are likely still unknown to researchers.
The No. 3-ranked golfer in the world Rory McIlroy cited his family’s health when he recently reversed an earlier opinion on traveling to Brazil for the Games and said he was withdrawing himself from consideration. “My health and my family’s health comes before anything else,” he said in a statement. “Even though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take.”
McIlroy’s decision follows that of U.S. cyclist Tejay van Garderen who also withdrew himself from consideration over concerns about potential risks to his pregnant wife. Also, TODAY show host Savannah Guthrie announced she was pregnant with her second child and was advised by her doctors not to travel to Rio with the NBC contingent.
The petition cites the frightening known and unknown effects of the virus and echoes Derr’s concerns in asking for changes:
“The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before. … It is unethical to run the risk, just for Games that could proceed anyway, if postponed and/or moved.”
It also points to past success discussing how Zika-carrying mosquitoes were eradicated in the 1950s, and saying, “Holding the Games, in the presence of [the] mosquitoes, is a choice and not a necessity.”
In light of that, Derr is concerned that public health isn’t being considered.
“Public health often comes last, and politics first,” he said, highlighting the petition’s additional request for an independent group to advise the WHO and IOC though “a transparent, evidence-based process in which science, public health, and the spirit of sport come first.”
“Given the public health and ethical consequences, not doing so is irresponsible,” the petition concludes.