One-hundred-and-fifty-two health experts have signed a letter calling for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to either halt the upcoming Olympic games in Brazil or move it elsewhere.
The letter warns that some 500,000 foreign tourists are expected to travel to Rio de Janeiro, which would lead to the virus being spread to countries where it may not have reached. It further states that the Zika virus has more serious medical consequences than first through and claims that the health emergency contains “many uncertainties.” One of the authors of the letter, Professor Amir Attaran, has stated that the games risk becoming the “Olympics of brain damage.” He believes that allowing the Olympics to go ahead would lead to the birth of more brain damaged children.
The letter also calls into question the relationship between the UN health agency and the IOC, which entered an official partnership in 2010. Professor Attaran states that the partnership between the WHO and the IOC was “beyond the pale” and calls the independence of the WHO into questions. He states that “it is ignorant and arrogant for the WHO to march hand-in-hand with the IOC,” adding, “how can it be ethical to increase the risk of spreading the virus? Just because a fire has begun doesn’t mean you need to pour gasoline on it.”
The WHO however has rejected the call, stating that suspending or moving the event would “not significantly alter” the spread of the virus. A statement released by the WHO indicates that “based on current assessment, cancelling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus,” adding, “Brazil is one of almost 60 countries and territories which to-date reporting continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes…People continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons…The best way to reduce the risk of disease is to follow public health travel advise.”
The Zika virus has been linked to serious birth defects including microcephaly-where babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. It has also been linked to Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis, which affect the nervous system. Nearly 1,300 babies have been born in Brazil with microphaly since the mosquito-borne Zika began circulating last year. The majority of those infected with the virus have no symptoms, however it can cause mild illness with symptoms that include rashes, fever and headaches. Pregnant women have already been advised not to travel to Rio de Janeiro, however the WHO has indicated that the risk of Zika will lessen in August because it is winter in Brazil.
While no Olympic Games has been moved because of health concerns, in 2003, FIFA moved the Women’s World Cup from China over fears of the respiratory virus SARS.
The Rio games are due to begin on 5 August.
The Olympic flame has arrived in Brazil for the start of a torch relay that will culminate with the opening of the Olympic Games in Rio in August.
The flame was flown inside a small lantern on a special flight from the Swiss city of Geneva to Brasilia. President Dilma Rousseff lit the Olympic torch, which will be carried around Brazil by 12,000 runners. The act could be one of President Rousseff’s last public acts ahead of a possible impeachment trial. Next week, the Senate is expected to vote on whether proceedings against her should go ahead. If a simple majority votes in favour, then Ms Rousseff will be suspended from office for up to 180 days and Vice President Michel Temer will take over. Ms Rousseff has been accused of manipulating government accounts ahead of her re-election in 2014. She has denied the charges and has stated that the impeachment proceedings are a “coup d’état” designed to remove her Workers’ Party from office.
Aside from the ongoing political crisis, Brazil’s economy has also slumped, with sources reporting that generating public support for the Olympic Games will be one of the main challenges during the torch’s 95 day journey around the country. The torch will pass through more than 300 towns and cities from the Amazon to Brazil’s southern border. It will arrive at the Maracana Stadium in Rio on 5 August. Amongst the first torchbearers will be a Syrian refugee who now lives in Brazil.
The flame for the Summer Olympic Games, which will be hosted by Brazil, has been lit in southern Greece.
During Thursday’s ceremony, actor Katerina Lehou performed the role of high priestess lit the torch by using the sun’s rays, offering a mock prayer to Apollo, the old Greek god of light and music. She lit the torch within a few seconds by using a concave mirror to catch the sunlight. She then delivered the flame to Greek world gymnastics champion Eleftherios Petrounias, the first runner in the torch relay. The ritual, which was established eighty years ago for the Berlin Games, is based on a ceremony in Ancient Olympia where games were held for more than 1,000 years.
The torch will be taken to various runners on an international relay that will culminate at the opening ceremony in Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on 5 August. The chief organizer of the Games, Carlos Nuzman, has promised to “delivery history,” stating that the Olympics would unit Brazil, which is beset by political and economic crises. Brazil President Dilma Rousseff was forced to cancel her trip to ancient Olympia because of the impeachment threat that she faces.
According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), before the flame arrives in South America, it will begin a six-day relay across Greece, passing through the town of Marathon, which gave its name to the long distance race, as well as a camp for refugees and migrants in Athens. The flame is due to arrive in Brazil on 3 May for a 100-day relay across the country. It will travel through 500 cities and villages in every Brazilian state and will be carried by about 12,000 torch bearers.
The World Health Organization on February 1 declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus an international health emergency due to its links to thousands of birth defects. WHO Director Margaret Chan said that coordinated action was needed to improve detection and expedite work on a vaccine and better diagnostics for the disease. The UN agency is concerned about a surge in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with small heads and underdeveloped brains. Chan said it was strongly suspected that Zika causes microcephaly.
This is the fourth time that the World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency since such procedures were put in place in 2007. Emergency declarations are meant as international SOS and usually brings more money and action to address the outbreak, as well as prompting research into possible treatments and vaccines.
The United Nations health agency said the Zika infection was spreading rapidly and could infect as many as 4 million people in the Americas. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the virus has spread in 24 nations and regions in the Americas.
On January 15, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised pregnant woman to postpone travel to more than dozen countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean to avoid infection with the virus. The agency raised the alert level for travellers to Haiti, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela.
Brazil is experiencing the largest known outbreak of Zika. On January 21, Brazilian health authorities said that the number of babies with microcephaly since October had reached nearly 4.000. The Health Ministry said that the surge was caused by the outbreak of Zika virus. On February 4, President Dilma Rousseff declared war on mosquitoes responsible for spreading the virus. Dilma announced that 220.000 members of the armed forces would go door to door to help to battle the mosquitoes.
Zika virus was first identified in monkeys in Uganda in 1947. The first human case was detected in Nigeria in 1954 and there have been further outbreaks in Africa, East Asia and the Pacific Islands. The most common symptoms of Zika virus are mild fever, conjunctivitis (red, sore eyes), headache, joint pain and rash. There is no vaccine or drug treatment so patients are advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids.
On November 1, Brazil’s government filed a 7.2 billion dollar lawsuit against the mining company Samarco and its co-owners, Australia’s BHP Billiton and Vale, to clean up the damage caused by the mine catastrophe in state of Minas Gerais.
In a speech to the climate change summit in Paris on Monday, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff blamed the disaster on the “irresponsible action of the company”. “We are severely punishing those responsible for this tragedy” she said.
The dam, holding waste water from Samarco mine in south-eastern Brazil, burst on November 5, killing 16 people and injuring 45. The closest village to the dam, Bento Rodrigues, was completely destroyed. The city council had to evacuate about 600 people from the village to higher ground. The mine waste also reached another village called Paracatú de Baixo. There was no warning so residents had to run for their lives as they realised the dam had collapsed.
According to a pair of United Nations experts, the avalanche of mud unleashed by the dam failure contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. These findings contradicted repeated statements by the mining companies responsible for the dam that chemicals released by the accident were harmless. “The scale of the environmental damage is the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850 kilometres,” the U.N. agency’s special rapporteur John Knox said in a statement.
Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said the toxic mud had devastated forests over a large area. The initial reports showed that an area of at least 9 square kilometres of natural vegetation was destroyed. The mud caused destruction along the path of the River Doce, which meets the Atlantic Ocean in the state of Espirito Santo, some 500 kilometres away from the area where the dam collapsed. Teixeira said a full study will be carried out by the Environmental Agency Ibama in 2016, once the rainy season is over. On November 17, Samarco agreed to pay the Brazilian government 260 million dollars in compensation for the disaster. The money will be used to cover initial clean-up and to help the victims and their families.
According to the Brazilian Committee on Dams, the dam breach near Mariana may be the most severe ever recorded in the country. The biggest dam breach recorded before this disaster was in Itabirito, Brazil, in 1986, when 7 people died.