On August 5, 2016, the Olympics will open in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro’s legendary Maracanã Stadium.

While millions will watch athletes from 207 countries enter the stadium at the opening ceremonies, much of the world will also keep an eye on one other headline-grabbing event: the outbreak of the Zika virus.

It was one year ago in May that the word “Zika” entered the modern global lexicon, when the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert for what quickly became a mass outbreak in Brazil.

As I wrote about back in January, the predominately mosquito-borne disease had spread to 22 countries throughout the Americas within months; links had been made to other ailments, including a disease that badly affected unborn children; and medical officials had confirmed their long-held suspicions that Zika could also be sexually transmitted.

Where does Zika stand today?

While efforts have been made to control the mosquito populations in affected countries and researchers investigate a cure or vaccination, the number of cases continues to increase and the possibility of it mutating into something more dangerous remains.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now reporting active transmission of Zika in 40 countries and territories in the Americas alone (that is, directly from mosquitoes, not through secondary sexual transmission from an infected person), while smaller outbreaks continue in Cape Verde and parts of the southern Pacific.

“Travellers could carry Zika virus back to potential hotspots such as India, Indonesia or Nigeria.”

In late May 2016, more than 150 prominent physicians, bioethicists and scientists from around the world made public a letter they had sent to the director-general of the World Health Organization, requesting that pressure be exerted on the International Olympic Committee to postpone or move this summer’s games in Rio de Janeiro.

With perhaps 500,000 athletes, journalists, officials and tourists expected to descend on Brazil for the Olympics and Paralympics, the scientists expressed concern not only that the overburdened Brazilian health care system would be unable to cope with any crisis, but that those travellers could carry Zika virus back to potential hotspots such as India, Indonesia or Nigeria.

Unsurprisingly, the IOC refused to accede to the request, stating they were closely monitoring the situation and remained confident of the precautions being taken by the government and local organizers.

For their part, national Olympic committees around the world followed the IOC’s lead and have remained committed to the games in Rio. While some athletes have been told that they do not have to go if they don’t wish to, having spent much of their lives training, few are likely to back out now.

Zika Virus in Brazil

A pest-control worker spraying insecticide at construction sites to prevent the spread of Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (iStockphoto/Luiz Souzarj)

Just what effect the scientists’ letter will have on travellers who plan to head to Rio remains to be seen, however.

Many Olympic-goers plan their trips years in advance in order to secure flights, accommodation and coveted tickets for key events. While some news media have reported that ticket sales are slow this time around, whether that is due to Zika, Brazil’s social and political problems, or the world’s economy is anyone’s guess.

“If you’re planning on being sexually active in Brazil, even if only with your partner, use a condom. Period.”

Apart from the group of scientists, most other government and medical groups have expressed less caution. The Canadian government continues to advise pregnant women or anyone planning a pregnancy to avoid all travel to any Zika zone, but has refrained from issuing any specific warning against Brazil or the 2016 Olympics. The WHO and the CDC have acted similarly, though the CDC has compiled a comprehensive list of the virus’s dangers, symptoms and risks.

For many, a trip to Brazil is a lifelong bucket-list dream. To cancel or postpone any such trip—especially if planned around the Olympics—is a difficult decision to make. Ultimately, unless your government or your travel-insurance provider strongly advises against it, the decision to go is entirely yours.

What you should do if you plan on attending the Olympics, or anywhere else touched by the Zika virus this year:

  • Before heading to Brazil, visit a travel-health clinic for the latest recommendations on Zika precautions, and any possible vaccines or medicines that may have been developed. And let’s keep our fingers crossed on that one!
  • Ensure all other routine and special travel inoculations are up to date: MMR, tetanus, diphtheria, polio, hepatitis, typhoid, yellow fever, meningitis, HPV and any others recommended by your doctor and the public health protocol. And depending on where else you may be headed in Brazil other than Rio, take malaria prophylactics
  • If you’re planning on being sexually active in Brazil, even if only with your partner, use a condom. Period. Since Zika is emerging as a sexually-transmitted disease as well as a mosquito-borne one, it can help prevent possible transmission between you and whomever you’re having sex with.  
  • Make sure your travel insurance will specifically cover you for exposure to Zika, and that you have adequate coverage for any medical or health eventuality.
  • Monitor all updates on the Zika situation before leaving home and while travelling.
  • In case of a natural or manmade disaster or a worsened health situation, it’s a good idea to register your travel plans online with the Canadian government before leaving home.
  • In Brazil, do everything possible to prevent mosquito bites. Since there is no Zika vaccine (yet), prevention is really the only way to protect yourself from getting infected. And because Zika is a virus, be aware that antibiotics are not effective in treating it. (Moreover, Brazil carries other serious mosquito-borne diseases including malaria, dengue and yellow fever. These precautions include the use of strong insect repellents, covering exposed skin, wearing light-coloured clothing, avoiding areas with stagnant water and using bed nets.)
  • Familiarize yourself with the most common Zika symptoms—they are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). If you develop any during your travel or upon return, consult a physician immediately and tell them where you’ve been. Though for most people the symptoms are mild and don’t last more than a few days, it’s a good idea to advise your doctor and local public health authorities.

As Zika possibly becomes a growing concern this coming summer—or not; a vaccine may be found, or relevant countries and jurisdictions may get their disease-carrying mosquito populations under control—my best advice is to stay on top of the issue, and ensure you include credible, viable sources in your learning process.

By their nature, public-health issues and emergencies are evolutionary—and your understanding of them should be, too.

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