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Should the 2016 Summer Olympics still be held in Rio?

I'm not sure it's such a great idea to hold a massive sporting event in the middle of an infectious disease outbreak.

Municipal workers wait before spraying insecticide at Sambodrome in Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 26. (REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts would like to think that it has earned a reputation for not panicking. When the Great Ebola Freakout of 2014 was in full bloom, Spoiler Alerts was here to point out how everyone was overreacting. When the phrase “abundance of caution” went mainstream, Spoiler Alerts was here to mock it. When Turkey and Russia started shooting down planes and talking tough, Spoiler Alerts said it probably wouldn’t boil over into war. When Iran seized U.S. sailors who strayed into Iranian territorial waters, Spoiler Alerts wrote down verbatim whatever Ben Rhodes told him to write down because he is a golden god suggested that way too many politicians and pundits were freaking the hell out.

The point I’m trying to make is that if I write that I’m worried about something, I’m not trying to scare-monger or grab attention. It means I’m genuinely concerned.

I bring this up because I’m wondering if it’s really such a great idea to hold the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio as scheduled in August.

Hope Solo will go to Rio Olympics but will sequester herself in team hotel

This has little to do with Brazil’s ongoing political turmoil (though that doesn’t exactly help inspire confidence that the Games will be run smoothly) and a lot to do with the Zika virus. Though Zika has been around in various forms for more than a half-century, study after study of its current iteration confirms that it’s a nasty piece of work. There is increasing evidence that this particular strain not only affects pregnant women but puts adults at risk for Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

And the epicenter for this outbreak is — wait for it — Brazil.

This week, in the Harvard Public Health Review, immunologist Amir Attaran makes the case for either postponing or moving the 2016 Olympic Games from Rio.

Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous, and Brazil’s outbreak more extensive, than scientists reckoned a short time ago.  Which leads to a bitter truth: the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession ….
Rio de Janeiro’s suspected Zika cases are the highest of any state in in Brazil (26,000), and its Zika incidence rate is the fourth worst (157 per 100,000). Or in other words: according to the Brazil’s official data, Rio is not on the fringes of the outbreak, but inside its heart….
[W]hile Brazil’s Zika inevitably will spread globally — given enough time, viruses always do — it helps nobody to speed that up. In particular, it cannot possibly help when an estimated 500,000 foreign tourists flock into Rio for the Games, potentially becoming infected, and returning to their homes where both local Aedes mosquitoes and sexual transmission can establish new outbreaks.

By all means read the whole thing. Attaran is not the most uncontroversial guy in the world, so maybe he’s overreacting. And I don’t think his suggestions for hosting the Olympics in a different city this summer are at all feasible — the required logistical U-turn would be too massive for this kind of event with this kind of short time window. Furthermore, because the Olympics will be held during Brazil’s winter, and because mosquitoes will be less populous then, the situation should improve.

Still, there are two reasons why I suspect that Attaran is not overreacting. The first is that a big global gathering like the Olympics seems tailor made to spread the disease. Normally when an epidemic breaks out, the concern is that people will travel from the infected area to other places to spread the disease, and whether other governments are overreacting to that migration. Indeed, that’s the cause of the myriad epidemiological freakouts that have occurred this century: SARS, H1N1, Ebola, etc.

This is a different question. This is all about whether it’s a good idea to have a major global event in a city that is in the middle of this kind of outbreak. This strikes me as a different kind of debate. Is it really such a hot idea to have a significant global gathering in the middle of a hot zone?

The second thing is that saying that Attaran is exaggerating means trusting the International Olympic Committee, which on Wednesday rejected Attaran’s for postponement. And if there was ever an institution that justifies the erosion of public trust, it is the IOC.

I feel uncomfortable writing this post. I feel extremely uncomfortable writing something that agrees with anything written at sites like this one. And I’ll be willing to change my mind if there’s evidence that Attaran is exaggerating or non-IOC authorities can be trusted.

But for now, it’s worth asking: Is proceeding with the Olympics in Rio this summer really such a hot idea?