Postponing the Olympics ‘a wrong and dangerous message’

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It is unlikely that the influx of travelers to Brazil for the Olympic Games in August will accelerate the spread of the Zika virus, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Professor Ashish Jha. In an editorial published June 19 in the Washington Post, Jha offers support for the conclusion by a World Health Organization panel that there is no scientific basis for halting the Summer Olympics or Paralympics over fears around the mosquito-borne virus.

Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and the K.T. Li professor of health policy at Harvard Chan,wrote that there is “exceedingly low risk” of travelers becoming infected with Zika. Mosquitoes are less active during Brazil’s cool summer months, and eradication efforts have been stepped up. In addition, Jha wrote, any new infections are unlikely to cause a substantial health threat. While the babies of mothers infected with Zika during pregnancy can suffer severe birth defects, most other infected people only experience mild symptoms.

“Trade and travel restrictions during outbreaks usually make things worse—by slowing the ability to transport doctors, nurses and critical medical supplies to affected areas,” Jha wrote, adding that this also creates an incentive for countries not to report outbreaks, as occurred with Ebola in 2014. “Postponing the Olympics would send a clear signal to future organizers of major world events: Keep disease outbreaks a secret or the world will act irrationally and cancel your event. That would be a wrong and dangerous message.”