Zika, the Olympics and the Brazilian coup

More than 230 scientific researchers, bioethicists and health experts from around the world have written an open letter charging that it is unethical to hold this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, center of the world’s Zika crisis.

World Health Organization director-general Margaret Chan rejected the claims, saying the Olympics would not significantly alter the international spread of the virus.

The scientists accuse the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of being in the back pocket of the International Olympic Committee and of supporting private developers linked to Brazil’s new right-wing cabinet who stand to gain big profits by hosting the games.

Brazilian developer Carlos Carvalho made $1 billion from publicly funded development when Rio hosted the 2014 soccer World Cup. Cities hosting the Olympics may only break even financially, but landowners, developers and private business people profit from an increase in land acquisition, construction, tourism and foreign investment.

‘Judicial coup’ gov’t protects wealthy profiteers

This May, in a maneuver described as a “judicial coup,” the government of President Dilma Rousseff of the center-left Workers Party was ousted in a supposed “anti-corruption” campaign led by Michel Temer, who immediately appointed an all-white, all-male, right-wing cabinet. The new government has already eliminated 4,000 public sector jobs and announced a labor “reform” that weakens workers’ rights.

Many of the new cabinet members have themselves faced charges of embezzlement and corruption. The new minister of science is a creationist, an evangelical bishop. The minister of agriculture is a soybean tycoon who deforested large areas of the Amazon rain forest.

Ricardo Barros, Temer’s new minister of health, has no background in medicine or health. He wants to bring the church into debates about abortion and contraception. In the middle of the Zika crisis, he said the new government may not be able to continue Brazil’s constitutionally guaranteed right to universal health care, which is facing cutbacks in the name of austerity. Barros is paying back more than a million reals — $296,000 — for fraud regarding the sale of garbage compactors and collectors when he was mayor of the city of Maringa.

Barros claimed there would be practically “zero” risk of contracting Zika during the Olympics because mosquito populations will drop during July and August, Brazil’s winter months. However, many have pointed out that temperatures frequently rise to nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit during those months. Brazil spent 25 times more on the 2014 World Cup than on this year’s annual budget to combat the Zika-borne mosquito Aedes aegypti.

Preparations for the games in Rio include sending in the National Guard to terrorize and remove over 400 families who live in favelas (shanty towns) around the site of the Olympics. Brazil, with one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, has about 18 million poor people living on less than $1.30 a day, the largest number in the Western Hemisphere. They are not among those profiting or pushing for the Olympics to be held in Brazil.

Zika is spreading

Meanwhile, Zika is spreading rapidly throughout Colombia. More than 12,000 pregnant women in Colombia have tested positive for the virus. The number of pregnant Zika-infected women in the United States has risen to 234 and the CDC says that thousands of pregnant women in Puerto Rico could be infected, which could mean dozens or even hundreds of infants being born with microcephaly, a birth defect causing slow brain development and abnormally small heads.

In their letter published May 28, scientists argue that Zika is more dangerous and extensive than it was first thought to be. They say too little is known about Zika transmission or its effects on a developing fetus during various stages of pregnancy. The strain of Zika in Brazil has already resulted in 1,489 cases of babies born with microcephaly and other neurological disorders. About 30 percent of pregnant women there have been infected with Zika. (Harvard Public Health Review, May 2016)

Replying to the scientists, the WHO argued that only a small number of tourists will contract Zika at the Olympics. But the scientists pointed out that a single infected person carried the virus into Brazil in 2013. Now, as many as 1.5 million people have been infected and it continues to spread rapidly.

Sexual transmission, oral, vaginal and anal, plays a more important role in the spread of Zika than was previously realized. The CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases reports that Zika may live in sperm 62 days after the onset of symptoms, which are not always obvious. This could increase the potential and rate of sexual transmission of Zika.

Wealthy sports fans staying in air-conditioned hotels in Rio may not feel they risk catching Zika. However, if Zika is spread internationally, it is women and poor people who will be impacted the most, especially those living in poor countries that haven’t got the resources to fight Zika. Seventy percent of the families affected by Zika-related illnesses live in extreme poverty.