Is Zika making our Olympic athletes unhealthy?

The Olympics are never without a health issue. In the pastit has been doping. But doping is never going to be eradicated, despite the number of exposes of athletes, withdrawn medals and public outrage. Now there is a new target – the Zika virus. The Olympics are a global health risk, rather than a celebration of global unity.

Zika and emerging global viruses are the new health terrorists because they are unpredictable, deadly and difficult to eradicate.

Athletes are becoming the victims of a public health battle.  Sadly these athletes come from poorer countries whose presence on the world stage is rare at other times.

On one side there are the established organisations such as the IOC and WHO who argue that the Olympics offer no greater risk for spread of Zika than current aeroplane travel. On the other side are 150 “Occupy Now” like activists – epidemiologists and public health notables who hint at a global conspiracy which masks the real risk. Caught in the crossfire are the athletes and Zika sufferers.

Zika and emerging global viruses are the new health terrorists because they are unpredictable, deadly and difficult to eradicate. Preventing them is also problematic because a person’s risk of getting a disease and even how sick they become, whether infectious or not, is linked to both their genetics and their exposure to the disease.

When a carrier is found all attention focuses on the public health implications and not the individuals. The DDT flooded mosquito breeding swamps of poorer nations are demonised and with them the innocent athletes.

This is the opposite of what happens in non infectious diseases like diabetes and cancer where clinicians and researchers are making treatments more personal and effective. Individual treatment was always at the opposite pole to public health. Clinicians rely on individual treatments and research. However, globalisation of pharmaceutical therapies, international guidelines, health workforce transportability and economic rationalism are moving clinicians closer to collective activists.

Now there is a chance for both disciplines to learn from each other. The Brazil Olympics can link public health with the individual. Elite athletes are one of the most studied groups in the world – health wise. Research into the interaction between their genetic make up and their susceptibility to transmitting infections would move us closer to the understanding how the two factions can work better together to promote global health.

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