June 9, 2016 - Elizabeth Whitman

June 9, 2016
Elizabeth Whitman

How many of you have attended or heard about athletic events that were delayed, postponed or called off because lightning strikes had been reported nearby? These precautions are commonplace, taken at every level of athletics including professional sports where spectators may have traveled far and paid great sums to see the game.

I’ll bet even when it happened to you, you accepted it with a curse or a shrug as very bad luck, for you, but justifiable to protect public health.

The National Weather Service, basing its estimate on decades of data, says the chance of your being hit by lightning is one in 1.2 million.

In Brazil, a country of about 208 million people, there have been over the last year and a half 194,000 confirmed or suspected cases of infection with the Zika virus. That would make the chances of someone in Brazil contracting this disease about one in 1.1 thousand.

But when 150 experts in medical science, medical ethics and public health, said that risk should cause the postponement or relocation of the 2016 Olympic Games, scheduled for this August in Brazil, their call was quickly rejected by both the International Olympic Committee, the World Health Organization and the CDC.

The WHO called the Zika epidemic that began in Brazil a global health emergency back in February, many months after the outbreak was called to their attention, and a month after Brazil had recorded at least 3,700 worst cases…of Zika-related microcephaly, a birth defect that leaves babies with tiny heads, damaged brains, a little prospect of anything close to a normal life. Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre disease, a brain ailment which can cause paralysis or death.

Now it says Zika has spread to almost 60 countries, 39 of them in our Western hemisphere, including the United States.

America’s Center for Disease Control, predicts that, by the end of this summer, more than 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million people could be infected with Zika.

Those last two items, the scary facts on global spread, and the even scarier prediction of localized infections are actually cited by the WHO and the CDC as reason why the Rio Games should go on as scheduled. The Zika cat is so far out of the epidemiological bag already, they say, that half a million, athletes, trainers, coaches, officials and fans visiting Brazil for a couple of weeks will not significantly add to the threat of wider spread of this potentially devastating illness.

Here’s one more little dump of data which may or may not relate to the reluctance to let the Zika outbreak interfere with the Olympic schedule.

“If the Rio Olympics go off without a hitch, the event could be expected to generate $4 billion to $4.5 billion,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College said.

Reading Room

Elizabeth Whitman is a reporter covering the business of healthcare. She previously spent two years reporting from Amman, Jordan and has written for Al Jazeera, The Nation and The Atlantic, among other outlets

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