Passport

Impeach the Rio Olympics, Argues Scientist

Previous government efforts to control the Zika virus have failed in Brazil, and the Olympics will help spread it globally.

BRASILIA, BRAZIL - MAY 03:  Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, lights the Olympic torch with Brazilian Olympic Committee Carlos Nuzman (L) and first torch bearer, volleyball player Fabiana Claudino at the Palacio do Planalto on May 3, 2016 in Brasilia, Brazil. The Olympic torch will pass through 329 cities from all states from the north to the south of Brazil, until arriving in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, to lit the cauldron.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
BRASILIA, BRAZIL - MAY 03: Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, lights the Olympic torch with Brazilian Olympic Committee Carlos Nuzman (L) and first torch bearer, volleyball player Fabiana Claudino at the Palacio do Planalto on May 3, 2016 in Brasilia, Brazil. The Olympic torch will pass through 329 cities from all states from the north to the south of Brazil, until arriving in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, to lit the cauldron. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Imagine trying to throw a giant party while going through an ugly divorce — and as disease-bearing mosquitoes swarm around your badly damaged house. That, essentially, is what Brazil is trying to do as it barrels toward this summer’s Olympic Games during an impeachment crisis and an as-yet uncontrolled Zika outbreak.

On Wednesday night, the Brazilian Senate voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. The political crisis that has rocked the country since Rousseff was first accused of manipulating government funds during her 2014 reelection campaign has only worsened the public health crisis caused by the explosive spread of a particularly dangerous strain of Zika virus.

Amir Attaran, a biologist and lawyer at the University of Ottawa who recently argued for canceling the 2016 Rio Olympics, told Foreign Policy that the “on-again, off-again impeachment” has hampered the government’s already-flawed efforts to control Zika.  

“Are we going to have a problem going into the coming few months with Zika and other infectious diseases in Brazil? Most definitely,” Attaran said in an interview hours before Rousseff was stripped of her presidential duties ahead of the impeachment process. “And that is most definitely caused by the political dysfunction reminiscent of a soap opera, and the long-term structural inequalities and failures of the Brazilian state.”

And now, the Olympics could help a dangerous strain of Zika go global. Attaran, who has served as an advisor to Brazil’s Ministry of Health, argued in the Harvard Public Health Review that Zika in Brazil is much more serious than previously acknowledged, and that allowing Rio to host the 2016 Olympics will speed up a global health crisis.

Rio has the highest number of probable Zika cases in the country, and the virus is more dangerous than previously thought — and not just for pregnant women, Attaran said.

“The effects on the adult nervous system are only beginning to be studied, but the preliminary findings are not good, and suggest that exposure to the virus is linked to Guillain-Barré disease, increasing the odds 60-fold,” he wrote.

In addition, new evidence seems to demonstrate both that Zika is clearly a cause of microcephaly, which shrinks babies’ brains, and that the virus can spread through sexual contact.

Speaking with FP, Attaran pointed out that the government has repeatedly failed at control efforts. Most importantly, while the virus was first identified in the country a year ago, the government did not start requiring reporting the disease until February 2016. “That is a staggeringly bad political decision by the Ministry of Health,” Attaran said.

Conditions on the ground have not helped matters either.

“Brazilian cities are terrible for humans but wonderful for disease,” Attaran said. “The reality is that you would not have a Zika outbreak if you had a properly governed country where there weren’t open pools of water where mosquitoes could breed. Where people did not live in ramshackle housing where mosquitoes could enter at will.”

Meanwhile, Rousseff’s efforts to control the virus through mosquito eradication appear to have been a failure, despite a military mobilization that Attaran calls “the single-biggest foray the country has had militarily, including during the military dictatorship.”

While it is impossible to compare the 2016 cases of Zika to 2015’s due to a lack of data, dengue fever rates suggest that the military eradication strategy was a failure. Dengue is spread by the same mosquito as Zika, so if the mosquitoes had been diminished, dengue rates would also have lowered. Instead, the first quarter of 2016 has seen a sixfold increase in dengue from last year.

That means international athletes and spectators will probably head into an environment with even more Zika than last year if the Olympics do go forward — which they will then carry back to their home countries, helping along a global pandemic.

Attaran believes the chance to control Zika in Brazil in time for the Olympics has long since passed. While Rousseff’s government failed to control the disease, the likelihood that her impeachment would lead to a new government that is ready and able to control the disease before the games is slim to none

“Forget it. It’s too late,” Attaran said. “At this point, there’s nothing the political leadership can do in time for the Olympics.”

Attaran believes the Olympics have little to offer the struggling country anyway, particularly ordinary citizens.

“The Olympics are emblematic of Brazil’s problem of being a country for the 1 percent,” he said. “The wealthy get what they want. The poor get disease and birth defects.”

Photo credit: BUDA MENDES/Getty Images

Correction, May 12, 2016: The city of Rio de Janeiro has the highest number of probable Zika cases in the country. A previous version of this article said that Rio had the highest incidence of the disease in the country.

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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