As the 2016 Olympic Games approach, they have created a heightened awareness of the Zika virus and the potential health concerns associated with it. The Zika virus, carried by mosquitoes can also be transmitted through sexual contact and is prevalent in the host country, Brazil. There currently is no vaccine, no known “cure” and it has also caused severe birth defects. Most at risk are women who are already pregnant, as the virus can be passed from mother to fetus. The transmission of the virus in utero could potentially cause birth defects such as microcephaly (a condition in which the brain does not develop properly during pregnancy and/or stops growing after birth). According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, women who are not pregnant nor planning to become pregnant shortly after a visit to an affected area, have little risk, reproductively, as blood tests show the virus usually clears the bloodstream within a week to 10 days. However, discussed less often, is the risk to men. The Zika virus has been found in the semen of infected men and it is unknown how long it stays there and over what period of time a man can transmit the virus through sex. This may be a bigger concern leading into the world’s largest sporting event in August. World golf #1 and #4, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy, respectively, have already pulled out of the Olympics due to concerns over Zika. But what about the athletes and the tourists/fans who still choose to go? And is there a risk that those who do go will return home and accelerate the spread of the virus?
Efforts are underway to try to protect those in attendance – both in the United States and in Brazil. One key factor is that it is winter in Rio, which means fewer mosquitoes. The city has been spraying insecticides and Olympic visitors and athletes are more likely to stay in areas with additional protections such as window screens and air conditioning. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), working with the CDC, will be supplying all athletes and delegation members with long-sleeved shirts and pants, as well as distributing condoms for up to six months following the games. In addition, the USOC is reviewing options for onsite testing, should athletes get sick at the competitions. While the tests don’t prevent the virus, it will provide information to those infected and allow them to make appropriate health choices in the weeks and months that follow.
While some, including a group who wrote an article in the Harvard Public Health Review, have called for the Games to be cancelled because visitors infected will then return home and further spread the virus, the World Health Organization and others suggest that this is not a real concern. In fact, Alessandro Vespignani, a professor of physics, computer science and health sciences at Northeastern University, developed a model that predicts the contribution of the Olympic Games to the global spread of Zika “is a fraction of a percent. This is a number that at this point doesn’t really make a difference.” In fact, one Sao Paulo-based research group predicts no more than 15 Zika infections to foreign visitors, while another group from the University of Sao Paulo’s data suggests no more than 16 additional cases.
In the end, each person must make their own decisions regarding participation and travel and take the responsibility for their health. Zika is a known threat for which many nations and health organizations have provided valuable information and recommendations for those wishing to travel to areas affected by the outbreak. And while the risk could be real, with the right precautions and monitoring, the Olympic Games should see little effect from this health danger and with some luck, should be a wonderful celebration, yet again, of the best athletes coming together from all around the world.