Medical professionals and athletes are beginning to question whether the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro should carry on as planned as the Zika virus continues to spread throughout Brazil.
The games are scheduled to begin in August, but the countdown to the big event has been overshadowed by the outbreak. The Mosquito-borne virus has spread rapidly in Brazil and through large parts of Latin America. The World Health Organization estimates as many as four million people could be infected by the end of the year. It’s believed to be linked to a rise in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect which leaves newborns with abnormally small heads.
Lee Igel, director of sports and society at New York University and a medical ethicist at the school’s Langone Medical Center, said the International Olympic Committee needs to seriously consider either moving, postponing or cancelling the games in Rio.
"This is a virus that's already spreading,"Igel said. "Bringing people into Brazil, having them move around Brazil, and many of them going back out, just adds to a problem."
On top of the Zika virus, Igel said, Brazil’s faces other conditions that are exacerbating the problem, including a tough economy and a turbulent political environment. He said Brazil’s leaders must evaluate where it will put its resources.
"It really is a question of money versus people," he said.
World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan recently insisted that athletes and fans should hold no fear about traveling to the Olympic Games in August, which is a winter month for Brazil, when mosquito activity should be down.
But some athletes are beginning to express concerns. Hope Solo, the star goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s soccer team, told Sports Illustrated that as of now, she wouldn’t go to the games in Rio, saying the virus poses a unique threat to women and pregnancies:
"We accept these particular choices as part of being a woman, but I do not accept being forced into making the decision between competing for my country and sacrificing the potential health of a child, or staying home and giving up my dreams and goals as an athlete. Competing in the Olympics should be a safe environment for every athlete, male and female alike. Female athletes should not be forced to make a decision that could sacrifice the health of a child."
Even though the Zika virus has been around for decades, Igel said researchers are still baffled by its links to microcephaly and the games may not be worth putting people at risk.