NYU Bioethicist, Amid Zika Threat, Wants to Reschedule Rio Olympics: ‘What the Hell’s the Difference?’

By
BRAZIL-RIO-OLY-2016-ZIKA-CARNIVAL
Zika could be a real problem in Rio.Photo: CHRISTOPHE SIMON

Concerns about the Zika-virus outbreak are pushing the CDC overboard, but Brazilian officials seem to be sticking to their guns as far as the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro are concerned. Despite the World Health Organization’s declaring the Zika outbreak a national emergency, Brazil’s sports minister issued a statement Friday saying, “The Brazilian government is fully committed to ensure that the 2016 Rio games take place in an atmosphere of security and tranquility,” implying that the games will go on as planned. This, says Arthur Caplan, director of the medical ethics program at NYU Langone Medical Center, is a bad idea.

Caplan doubts Brazil will cancel the games altogether. “What I hope they might do is postpone,” he said. “Right now we don’t have a good diagnostic test; we don’t have a good screening test to protect the blood supply, which is a big issue because if pregnant or fertile women get exposed to Zika in a transfusion it’s a real problem; we don’t have a vaccine; we don’t really have a good way to kill all the mosquitoes yet. If you wait 6 months or 9 months, you might get all those things.”

The games are scheduled to start in August, which is a drier, cooler month in Brazil, but Caplan said there’s no reason to believe we’ll have better control over Zika by then. “Even if this thing is not as big as it is now, if it’s still percolating [in August], it’s trouble,” he said. And although some athletes have said they’re willing to risk infection to chase an Olympic gold, they’re not the only ones who will need protection. “People are going to say, ‘Gee, let’s round up the kids and go down to watch the discus throw,’” Caplan said. “Fans could be greatly impacted if we try to go forward.” Although Caplan says he understands why Brazil wouldn’t want to cancel the games, it’s harder for him to understand why Olympics officials wouldn’t. “They’re prepped to have them at a particular time,” he said. “But I find myself thinking, ‘What the hell’s the difference?’”