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Health

Zika virus causes concern over the 2016 Olympics

Flickr/Woodland Mosquito

Every four years, sports fans around the world gather in support of their favorite teams for one of the world’s largest sporting events: the Olympics. In 2016, the Olympic games are being hosted in Rio. There are more concerns for spectators than who will win the gold medal, though.

Apart from lack of education and high poverty and crime rates, Brazil has been having a pretty tough year.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has recently been suspended from office pending an impeachment trial after she was accused of illegally manipulating government accounts. The repercussions of this have been nothing short of disastrous for Brazil and its citizens.

Just last week, a massive protest broke out on a Brazilian beach after a 16-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by a group of 33 men.

If that isn’t enough, the Zika virus has been spreading through Brazil for the past few years and concerns of the disease spreading are growing. The outbreak has had a ripple of effects on public health and the environment. Now, there are calls for the 2016 Olympics to be moved.

On Feb. 1, 2016, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Zika virus spreads to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, and it is particularly a concern for pregnant women. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has placed a travel alert in Brazil, warning tourists to protect themselves from mosquitoes, because if infected, the could bring the disease home with them.

To date, there have been Zika infections documented in 62 countries and territories and 1,069 cases of microcephaly and other fetal malformations potentially associated with Zika.

Spectators and athletes alike are concerned about visiting a place where an infectious disease with frightening effects abounds. TODAY host Savannah Guthrie has opted out of attending the summer Games after her recent pregnancy announcement. British long jumper Greg Rutherford is still participating in the Games but has decided to freeze his sperm in fear of catching the virus. The USA swimming team has even relocated its training camp from Puerto Rico to Atlanta.

“The fire is already burning but that is not a rationale not to do anything about the Olympics,” wrote University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran in an article for the Harvard Public Health Review. “It is not the time now to throw more gasoline on to the fire.”

Attaran states five reasons the Games should be postponed or moved.

First, Rio is more infected than people expected. Second, the viral strain that recently entered Brazil is clearly new, different and more dangerous than the “old” Zika. Third, we don’t need to speed up the process of spreading the virus. Fourth, when the Games do speed up the process, the job of inventing new technologies to stop it becomes harder. Fifth, proceeding with the Games goes against what the Olympics stand for by not living up to social responsibility standards.

The CEO of New York’s Mount Sinai Health System also warned against attending the Olympics, especially pregnant women.

"I'm not an infectious disease expert, but as a general way I think that pregnant women really have to watch out here. So I would err on the side of caution," Dr. Ken Davis told CNBC.  

In light of the epidemic, health experts wrote an open letter to the International Olympic Committee to move or postpone the Games due to risk of spreading the disease. The letter brought attention to scientific studies suggesting that the Zika virus is responsible for birth defects, and in rare cases, paralysis. This letter has now been signed by more than 200 academics and health experts.

While nearly 80 percent of infected people don’t show symptoms, that is not the concern of those writing the letter. They are worried about the 500,000 expected fans at the Rio Games who will return infected and spread the disease like wildfire.

The logic is simple: if you want to contain an infectious disease, limit travel. Allowing people from all over the world to enter the heart of the infection zone almost guarantees a global reach.

Despite the call to action, the World Health Organization (WHO) has rejected the idea of postponing or relocating the Olympics.

WHO team director Margaret Chan said in a press conference that risks of Zika should be lower in August, due to the winter season in Brazil.

“Brazil is one of almost 60 countries and territories which to date report continuing transmission of Zika by mosquitoes,” she said. “People continue to travel between these countries and territories for a variety of reasons. The best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health travel advice.”

The CDC recommends taking the following precautions to prevent Zika:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Stay in air conditioned places or screen-in areas
  • Sleep under mosquito netting
  • Use insect repellant

The committee is also working to control mosquitoes, Mario Andrada, executive communications director for Rio 2016, told NBCNews. That includes daily patrols to eliminate the standing water that the insects breed in.

“We understand that protections can be achieved with information,” he said. “Athletes and tourists will be briefed before getting to Brazil and briefed once they get here on how to protect themselves."