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‘Potentially catastrophic, extremely negligent’: Postpone or move Rio Olympics, Canadian lawyer urges

The following is a reprint of an article by Sheryl Urelacker, of the Canadian Press, that appeared in the National Post.

TORONTO — The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro should be postponed or moved to other venues because of the global threat posed by the Zika virus epidemic in Brazil, says a Canadian professor of law who specializes in public health.

In a commentary published in the May issue of the Harvard Public Health Review, Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa says the expected half-million visitors to the Olympic and Paralympic Games could spread the virus once they return to their home countries.

Most people who get infected by the mosquito-borne virus don’t experience any symptoms. Those who do typically complain of fever, body aches, rash and red eyes.

But Zika has been found to cause a serious birth defect — undersized heads and underdeveloped brains, known as microcephaly — in some babies born to women infected during pregnancy. The virus has also potentially been linked to a paralyzing condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome and other neurological disorders in some children and adults.

The disease, which has reached epidemic levels in South and Central America, parts of Mexico and the Caribbean, can also be transmitted sexually from an infected partner.

“The problem is we’re essentially faced with a situation of games versus health,” Attaran said in an interview Monday from Ottawa. “And to me, it’s very clear that you don’t play games so as to wreck the health of the world, which is very possibly the outcome.”

He argues it would be irresponsible for the International Olympic Committee and the World Health Organization (WHO) to allow the Games — slated to begin in less than 90 days, on Aug. 5 — to go ahead.

“I characterize it as potentially catastrophic, extremely negligent, ill-considered and inconsistent with the scientific evidence,” said Attaran, noting that the science on Zika has rapidly evolved since the IOC last stated that the Games will proceed as planned.

Since that statement in late January, in which the IOC expressed confidence that the Games will be safe and advised participants on how to protect themselves from mosquito bites, researchers have proven that Zika infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly in newborns.

“It’s a bit like saying: ‘We’re holding the Games in Fukushima. Protect yourself. Wear a lead suit. It will all be fine,’ “quipped Attaran, referring to the 2011 post-tsunami nuclear disaster in Japan.

He also criticized the WHO for not taking a stronger stance on the threat of worldwide Zika transmission as a result of the Olympic Games, given that the agency’s director general, Margaret Chan, had declared the explosive spread of the virus in the Americas a global public health emergency.

A spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva could not be reached for comment Monday.

Attaran said he’s not arguing that the Olympics should be cancelled — just rescheduled or moved to a safer location or even several locations.

“I think you could get it done in 90 days, because there is no longer a need to have all the Games in the same place,” he said, pointing out that events could be split up using facilities in such cities as London, Beijing and Sydney, which hosted previous Summer Olympics.

“This is actually a plus. This is not a negative. This would be taking an unfortunate tragedy known as Zika and fashioning it into the world’s first-ever truly global Olympics. How can anyone dislike that idea?”

Attaran said it doesn’t make sense for the small percentage of people who can afford to travel to Rio to enjoy “their bread and circuses” at the possible expense of the far greater proportion of the world’s population who are unable to attend the Games or to risk the health of unborn children.

“This isn’t a kill-joy argument,” he said. “It’s an argument for delayed gratification so that babies aren’t born permanently disabled.

“Who could seriously argue that their game is more important than a child’s life?