Shaheen Calls on World Health Organization to Evaluate Public Health Risks of Holding 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil

May 17, 2016

**Nearly two million people in Brazil have contracted the Zika virus since its initial outbreak**

**Shaheen voices concern for athletes, spectators, and public who risk exposure and global acceleration of the Zika outbreak**

**Shaheen’s letter follows an earlier press conference held by the World Health Organization on the topic**

(Washington, DC) – Today, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) urged the World Health Organization to break their silence on the potential for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games to spur a global outbreak of the Zika virus. In a letter sent to Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Shaheen urged the WHO to commission a comprehensive evaluation of the public health risks associated with the Summer Olympic Games that will be held in August in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nearly two million Brazilians have contracted Zika since its initial outbreak in 2015. An estimated 10,000 athletes from as many as 200 countries, and 500,000 spectators from around the world are expected to travel to Brazil for the Summer Olympic Games. Earlier today in Geneva, Dr. Chan held a press conference on the topic going only so far to say that athletes and attendees should exercise necessary precautions if they attend the Games.

In her letter, Shaheen voices her strong concern about the potential for the Olympics to greatly accelerate the global outbreak of Zika, citing a recent paper in the Harvard Public Health Review by Dr. Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa.

“The Olympic Games is a global event that brings citizens and communities together from around the world. But I question whether gathering thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of spectators in a country where nearly two million people have been infected with Zika is safe for our global health,” said Shaheen. “Athletes, spectators and the public deserve to understand the personal and global health risks associated with holding the Games in Brazil. All of the efforts underway to prevent Zika are at risk of being undone if the Olympic Games spurs a global outbreak.”

While the full medical impact is not yet known, the Zika virus is associated with pediatric microcephaly and brain damage, and studies have also linked it to adult conditions like Guillain-Barre syndrome and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. Scientists have also indicated that the strain of Zika in Brazil is more dangerous than previous Zika outbreaks that have occurred elsewhere in the world. 

Today in the Senate, cloture is expected to be invoked on an amendment to provide more than $1 billion in emergency spending to help combat the Zika virus in the U.S.

May 17, 2016

Dr. Margaret Chan

Director-General

World Health Organization

Avenue Appia 20

1211 Geneva 27

Switzerland

Dear Dr. Chan:

As you know, the 2016 Olympic Summer Games are scheduled to be held this August in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika virus.  The Zika virus is associated with pediatric microcephaly and brain damage, and studies have also linked it to adult conditions like Guillain-Barre syndrome and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. Nearly two million people in Brazil alone have contracted Zika since its initial outbreak last year, and the Brazilian Ministry of Health reports that there have been more than 4,000 confirmed and suspected cases of microcephaly linked to Zika, a severe increase over previous years.  In addition, scientists have also indicated that the strain of Zika in Brazil is more dangerous than previous Zika outbreaks that have occurred elsewhere in the world. 

Travelers to Zika-infected countries not only put themselves at risk for the disease, they also put their own communities at risk if they live in a region that hosts the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, the known vector that carries the virus.  Anyone carrying the virus in regions of the world where the Aedes Aegypti lives could cause localized outbreaks.  According to recent reports, Zika could spread to nearly 50 cities in the United States where the Aedes Aegypti lives by June. 

That is why, with an estimated 10,000 athletes from as many as 200 countries, and 500,000 spectators from around the world traveling to Brazil, I have serious concerns about the potential for the Olympics to greatly accelerate the global outbreak of the Zika virus. 

Earlier this year, the WHO characterized the Zika outbreak in Brazil as an “extraordinary event,” and a public health threat to other parts of the world.  But your organization has not made any statements that I am aware of relative to the safety of holding the Olympics in Brazil this August. 

This week, Dr. Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa, writing in the Harvard Public Health Review, presented a compelling argument as to how the Olympics will dramatically speed up the spread of the Zika virus throughout the world.

Given Dr. Attaran’s recommendations, I believe it is imperative that the WHO commission a comprehensive evaluation of the public health risks associated with the Games being held in Brazil and publish the findings without delay.

The WHO has been a tremendous leader so far in the response to the Zika virus.  Your organization should be commended for taking swift action earlier this year to declare the Zika outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”.  The steps being taken by the WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health are aiding the global response to improve the surveillance, detection and treatment of the disease.  But all of the efforts underway to prevent Zika are at risk of being undone if the Olympic Games spurs a global outbreak. 

Thank you for your urgent attention, I look forward to the WHO’s findings on this most serious matter.

Sincerely,

Jeanne Shaheen

United States Senator

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