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Senator to WHO: Take Another Look at Whether The Olympics Is Such a Great Idea

Senator Jeanne Shaheen is calling for an evaluation of the potential public health risks posed by the Olympics.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 15:  Teens sit on a new sign reading 'Cidade Olimpica' (Olympic City) in the historic port district on October 15, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games games, the port district is undergoing a controversial multibillion dollar urban renewal program although some projects have been delayed in the midst of Brazil's recession. Many parts of the port district retain descendants of African slaves along with Afro-Brazilian historical locations including the area where samba music is thought to have been born in Rio.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 15: Teens sit on a new sign reading 'Cidade Olimpica' (Olympic City) in the historic port district on October 15, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games games, the port district is undergoing a controversial multibillion dollar urban renewal program although some projects have been delayed in the midst of Brazil's recession. Many parts of the port district retain descendants of African slaves along with Afro-Brazilian historical locations including the area where samba music is thought to have been born in Rio. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The 2016 Olympics in Brazil: a month-long sporting jaunt that brings a conflict-ridden world together? Or a Zika-spreading international mistake?

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) would like to prevent the games from becoming the latter. She sent a letter Tuesday night to Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, calling for a “comprehensive evaluation” of the public health risks presented by the games.

“I think it’s important to get that kind of evaluation so that we can respond appropriately so that the athletes and those people who are attending can know what to expect and prepare,” Shaheen told Foreign Policy in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Shaheen did not elaborate on whether that response could include postponing or moving the games. “I’m not going to prejudge what the outcome of that kind of evaluation would be,” she said.

The idea of holding the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika outbreak, was questioned recently by Amir Attaran, a scientist who wrote in the Harvard Journal of Public Health that the games would help create a “foreseeable global catastrophe.”

Chan herself seems relatively unfazed by the Zika threat. She told reporters at a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday that she plans to attend the Olympics.

“You don’t want to bring a standstill to the world’s movement of people,” she said. “This is all about risk assessment and risk management.”

The WHO recommends that pregnant women not travel to Brazil and that those who do take precautions to prevent mosquito bites. They also recommend that visitors “avoid visiting impoverished and over-crowded areas in cities and towns with no piped water and poor sanitation.”

Yet, as Christopher Gaffney, a geography research fellow at the University of Zürich pointed out in the New York Times this week, “The majority of Rio’s Olympic sites sit on swampy lowlands on the shores of sewage contaminated lagoons.”

The response of Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes was also less than comforting: “I don’t know anyone who’s got the Zika virus and I know a lot of people so this is not a big issue,” he told Sky News.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dismissed the idea of cancelling or postponing the games, but CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner told FP by email that the organization is researching whether the Olympics could spread Zika worldwide, especially through the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

“CDC researchers are studying the estimated Olympic delegation size for each country attending the Games and their usual travel volume to and from Brazil – and comparing that to the ability of the Aedes aegypti to circulate in their country, whether they have a history of epidemic dengue and their ability to support an outbreak response,” said Skinner.

Shaheen said that while she is worried for the United States, where Zika is almost certain to spread, the potential impact on developing countries could be even more severe.

“We saw that with the Ebola virus, the countries in Africa that were infected did not have the same ability to respond as industrialized countries,” she said.

Countries have found a variety of ways to prepare their athletes for the games, such as providing window screens, air conditioners, and protective clothing.

Some of the preparations so far have been creative, if not exactly comforting. The Australian Olympic team, for example, will be provided with condoms containing VivaGel, an antiviral lubricant that the manufacturer says can help stop the spread of Zika.

But the problem with Zika, said Shaheen, is that new information comes to light about how the virus spreads and what the effects are comes to almost daily.

“I think part of the challenge is that we’re dealing with a viral outbreak that we’re still learning about,” said Shaheen. “So really asking the WHO to do an evaluation of the virus and what the risks are to athletes and people attending the Olympic games and what the potential risks are is very appropriate.”

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Megan Alpert is a fellow at Foreign Policy. Her previous bylines have included The Guardian, Guernica Daily, and Earth Island Journal. @megan_alpert

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