Why the Zika virus poses little risk to Olympic attendees
Olivia Richter lays out the argument against fear of a Zika outbreak in Rio
I recently watched Jimmy Fallon joke about lifting a ceremonial giant mosquito net covering all of Rio during the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. He said, “the Olympics will be simultaneously broadcast on NBC and WebMD.” Quite a bit of speculation has been raised about the safety of hosting the Games in Rio due to the Zika virus, which has rocked Brazil since early 2015. Are these fears well based in research?
The answer is not an easy one to explain -- while the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization say the Zika virus poses little risk to Olympic visitors this month, other public health experts have said otherwise.
In a piece featured in the Harvard Public Health Review this May by public health scholar Amir Attaran, he argued that the Games should be moved because not enough is known about the most recent strain of Zika (the disease was first discovered in Uganda in 1947). He insists that the lack of knowledge, and the subsequent lack of an effective vaccine, puts travelers at risk of infection.
Here are the facts: the Olympics will surely attract thousands upon thousands of people from every corner of the globe to Rio, overcrowding the city in a bacteria breeding ground. Considering the high levels of Zika infection in Brazil, it makes sense that people all over the world have questioned the safety of Rio. But the presence of Zika in the area is not the only factor at play.
While Zika can be transmitted sexually, its main method of infection is by the mosquito bite of the species Aedus Agypti. Brazil tends to be cool and dry in August, as it is in the midst of its winter. These conditions are not ideal for mosquitos who thrive in moist environments, meaning that it is unlikely that they will be a significant presence at the Games. The city has also been heavily treated with insecticide, further protecting it from mosquitos. Additionally, Rio happens to be hundreds of miles from the epicenter of the Zika outbreak in northeastern Brazil.
Is this enough reassurance to claim the Games are truly low-risk for Zika infection? Scientists have compared the 2014 Rio World Cup to the upcoming Games. During the Cup, Brazil was heavily affected by the Dengue virus. The Dengue virus, a mosquito-borne tropical disease, had reached epidemic levels similar to those of the Zika virus this year.
However, of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who travelled to Brazil for the World Cup, only three Dengue infections occurred and all were far from Rio in a city called Belo Horizonte. Dengue, like Zika, is most commonly transmitted by mosquito bite. The weather conditions of the Cup and the Games are nearly identical, being only a month apart. Because of the similarities in these viruses, a Cambridge University study used the frequency of Dengue cases in Rio tourists to estimate the risk of Zika transmission at the Games, and projected that as little as 15 new Zika cases could result from the Games.
To their credit, the WHO and CDC still advised pregnant women to skip the Games due to the devastating effects the Zika virus can have on babies. To ensure absolute preparedness, U.S. athletes have been informed of effective mosquito bite prevention and been provided long sleeve shirts and pants. They will also be given a six-month supply of condoms to continue using after leaving Brazil.
Five D.C. area athletes are competing in the Games this summer. Olympic gold medalist swimmer Katie Ledecky, swimmer Kate Ziegler, fencer Katharine Holmes, runner Matthew Centrowitz and boxer Gary Antuanne Russel are all in Rio preparing for or competing in their respective events. Ledecky expressed her confidence in traveling to the Games alongside teammate Michael Phelps, who said, “We’re not worried about it.”
Although a giant mosquito net will not be present at the Games this month, Olympic athletes and spectators alike are safe in Rio and can keep their focus on the gold.
Olivia Richter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and a columnist for The Eagle.