Michael Phelps will be participating in his fifth Olympics this week in Rio with hopes of bringing home the gold one last time before retirement. However this year, Phelps and his 10,000 fellow athletes have more than just the competition to worry about. Quietly lurking behind the excitement of the Olympics is the potential threat of Zika for both athletes and the half million expected visitors descending on the city.
How great is the Zika threat in Rio?
International public health experts, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintain that the risk of Zika spreading internationally is not any greater with the Olympics being held in Rio than it already is with the regular travel that occurs to all Zika-affected countries.
Because Brazil is only one of almost 60 countries reporting continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitos and people continue to travel between these countries for a variety of reasons. The CDC points out that the Olympics will account for less than one percent of travel to all Zika affected countries. This year alone, regular travel between the US, the Caribbean and Latin America has led to over 1,400 imported Zika cases within the US. This past Friday, the first locally-acquired cases of Zika were reported in Florida as a result of the infected mosquitoes that live in that area.
Zika is spread from person to person mainly through mosquitoes. So another reason Zika is unlikely to be an issue in Rio is because it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere in Brazil, and mosquitoes avoid the cooler and dryer winter weather.
Rio is also in southern Brazil and happens to be far from the center of the Zika outbreak in northeastern Brazil where most cases originate. Additionally, Olympic travelers will likely be spending their time at the Olympic venues in Rio that have already been heavily treated with insecticide to control mosquito breeding.
History has provided us with yet another perspective on the risk. When the World Cup was held in Rio in July 2014, experts predicted that dengue, another mosquito-borne virus transmitted by the same mosquito that transmits Zika, might be a problem. Although Brazil has one of the highest rates of dengue infection in the world, there were only three cases of dengue reported from the one million international tourists who attended the tournament, and all originated from Belo-Horizonte – 300 miles north of Rio.
What precautions should be taken by athletes and visitors?
Remember, most people who get infected with Zika have no symptoms and it doesn’t seem to harm them. The biggest risk is serious birth defects in the developing fetus. For this reason, the CDC specifically recommends that pregnant women should not travel to the Olympic games, and that reproductive-age females and males take precautions, like wearing insect repellent and using condoms during sex, since Zika can also be sexually transmitted. When returning home, men should use condoms for at least eight weeks after travel and couples who want to get pregnant after attending the games should wait at least eight weeks. See additional recommendations from the CDC.
Risk of flu not Zika
Winter is flu season in Rio so there is a much bigger chance that visitors will bring home the flu, a much more dangerous disease for everyone, instead of Zika. So if you are attending the games, make sure to wash your hands, use alcohol hand sanitizer frequently and cough in your sleeve or tissue (not your hands!) in addition to using insect repellant, of course.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE to learn what you need to know about the Zika virus.
I am a patient safety expert from Chicago who helps organizations promote a safe environment for patients, workers, and their communities. When I am not working you will find me playing tennis, pickle ball, or laughing with my granddaughter, Paloma. Connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter.