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Public Health Professor: Because Of Zika, Rio Olympics 'Must Not Proceed'

The Olympic flame gets a lift from former Brazilian volleyball player Leila Barros, who took part in this month's torch relay. The games are set to begin on Aug. 5.
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The Olympic flame gets a lift from former Brazilian volleyball player Leila Barros, who took part in this month's torch relay. The games are set to begin on Aug. 5.

Amir Attaran, a professor in the School of Public Health and the School of Law at the University of Ottawa, isn't afraid to take a bold stand.

He has written a commentary for the Harvard Public Health Review, published this week, with the headline, "Why Public Health Concerns for Global Spread of Zika Virus Means that Rio de Janeiro's 2016 Olympic Games Must Not Proceed."

The World Health Organization is soon expected to release a statement with guidance on travel to the Olympics.

NPR's Robert Siegel spoke to Attaran about his controversial position. Attaran's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

You are calling for the Summer Games to either be postponed or moved to other countries — London, Beijing, Sydney. Why?

The risk of [accelerating the spread] of Zika is simply too great to bear.

What we know from Brazil's devastating outbreak is that it began with a single infected person who brought the virus to South America. Does it really make sense to send a half-million [Olympic tourists] into Rio, which is, to be very clear, not the fringes of the outbreak. It's the heart of the outbreak. Rio de Janeiro state has more Zika cases than anywhere else in the country. Doesn't make sense.

So are you saying the games should be canceled?

No one is saying cancel the games. But is it at the end of the day sensible to run the risk of a global epidemic of, let's face it, brain-damaged babies, when that could be avoided by simply postponing the games or moving them elsewhere?

This is not a question of worrying about whether individual athletes get sick or individual tourists. For any of those individuals, the risk is quite low. But when you multiply by 500,000, the odds are extremely high that somebody will take the disease elsewhere and seed a new outbreak.

Wouldn't it also be logical from your perspective that no one should travel to Rio de Janeiro?

We can't fall into the trap of being extremist. It would be completely inappropriate, totalitarian even, to say nobody should enter or exit. But do we need to accelerate the entry and exit by a half-million people for [the Olympic] games?

We speak of the Summer Games, but actually in the Southern Hemisphere where they're taking place, it'll be winter. And some people say mosquitoes won't be that much of a problem because it's not their season.

There's no doubt that mosquitoes will decline in Rio's winter, but they're not going to decline to point that the disease vanishes. Other mosquito-transmitted diseases like dengue fever persist through the winter in Rio, and Zika will too because it's transmitted by the same mosquito. But here's the bigger problem: in Rio this year, insect-transmitted disease is up 600 percent over the same period last year. Why did it go up 600 percent when there are mosquito control efforts? That proves the efforts aren't working as well as one would have liked. And even if the mosquito-borne diseases do go down over winter, they're coming down from a level that's six times higher than normal.

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