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Brazil anxious that Zika virus could deter Olympic visitors

A health worker sprays insecticide to stop the spread of the Zika virus ahead of upcoming Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Credit: AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Since its outbreak in Brazil last year, the Zika virus has spread with alarming speed through Latin America and, with a few isolated cases, to the United States. Now, Brazilian officials are anxious that fears of contracting the virus will deter visitors from traveling to Rio de Janeiro in August for the 2016 Olympic Games.

The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito as well as, potentially, through sexual contact. With fewer than 200 days until the start of the Rio games, Brazilian authorities are taking every precaution to ensure that tourists don’t feel threatened by Zika, which is thought to be the cause of a recent and dramatic increase in newborns being born with a brain malformation known as microcephaly.

“The Olympic and Paralympic venues will be inspected on a daily basis,” said Philip Wilkinson, a spokesman for Rio 2016.

The inspections will begin four months before the Games to eliminate any stagnant water that could serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and the facilities will be inspected daily after the start of the games. Fumigation will be used on a case-by-case basis, according to the BBC, to ensure the health and safety of the athletes and visitors.

The Brazilian health ministry says it is also banking on the fact that the Games are taking place during the region’s dry season, when mosquitoes are far less evident and there are considerably fewer cases of mosquito-borne viruses.

Although the primary concern is for pregnant women, Brazil’s tourism minister, Henrique Alves, said Brazil is safe for pregnant women as well. According to the New York Times, he added that he expects the Zika outbreak to ease, and that by August, the virus will not affect the games. So far, officials say they see no signs of trip cancellations in Rio or even in the state of Pernambuco, the hotbed of the Zika outbreak.

Some have criticized Olympic and tourism officials in Brazil for initially downplaying the risks of contracting Zika for foreign visitors in light of the Olympics as well as the upcoming Carnival celebrations, which attracted 1.5 million tourists just last year.

But Brazilian officials have since had to act after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged pregnant women to postpone travel to Brazil and 20 other countries in Latin America. The CDC also recommended that pregnant women who have recently traveled to these places be screened and monitored for the Zika virus.

While we lack definitive proof that the Zika virus causes microcephaly, the evidence we do have is both suggestive and extremely worrisome, according to Margaret Chan, director general at the World Health Organization.

The governments of Brazil and other countries have also recommended that women avoid becoming pregnant until the virus is better understood, with El Salvador issuing the recommendation to delay having children for another two years. If this recommendation sounds like a cry of desperation, it’s because it is: more than 3,700 cases of microcephaly have been recorded in the last 13 months. In comparison, just 147 cases of microcephaly were recorded in 2014.

Public health officials see no easy solution due to the sheer number of mosquitoes, and because there is currently no known vaccine for the virus.

“We are losing the battle in a big way,” said Brazil’s health minister, Marcelo Castro, according to Reuters.

Last week, the British biotech company Oxitec announced that it was extending its trial of genetically modified mosquitoes in Brazil to try to decrease the population of the Aedes aegypti species. Meanwhile, laboratories in the U.S. and the U.K. are rushing to develop a method of identifying the virus in suspected patients, as well as a vaccine; a process, according to Reuters, that scientists say may take years.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at