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Zika in Rio: Hype or Health Hazard at the 2016 Olympics?

By Carolyn Heneghan August 10, 2016 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

Over the past few weeks, athletes and visitors reached Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the 2016 Olympics to find a country touched by turmoil, ranging from political concerns to nearly 166,000 suspected and confirmed cases of Zika virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Media speculation on the potential dangers of Zika has run rampant across news outlets worldwide. The concern is understandable: Zika is linked to birth defects in the babies of infected pregnant mothers and, in rare cases, neurological conditions.

But is the problem of Zika in Rio enough to derail a global event for which hundreds of thousands of athletes, organizers, workers, businesses, journalists, and travelers have prepared over the last four years? The answer depends on who you ask.

Health Professionals Call for Action

Earlier this summer, a group of 150 doctors, scientists, and bioethicists wrote a letter to the WHO requesting that the organization intervene to postpone or move the Olympics away from Rio because of concerns surrounding the spread of Zika virus in the region.

The letter suggested that the WHO rejected alternatives for dates and locations for the Games because of a conflict of interest with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It also cited a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to "consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission," which included Rio de Janeiro.

However, the WHO responded that "based on current assessment, canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus." The organization also noted that Brazil is only one of many countries reporting active transmission of the virus, and people continue to travel between those nations for various reasons.

What Do the Athletes Think?

If anyone should be concerned about Zika in Rio, it's the world's leading athletes. These 10,500 athletes have traveled from 206 countries across the globe to represent their nation in their chosen sport and need to be in peak physical condition in order to compete. Needless to say, catching Zika upon arrival in Brazil or during the competition could put years of hard work and training to waste.

Those concerns were real enough that several athletes withdrew their consideration for this year's Olympic Games. In the months leading up to Rio, about two dozen male golfers, including the top four seeds and several major champions, pulled out of the running because of Zika concerns. This was notable in part because this summer is the first time golf has been held at the Olympics since 1904.

Australia's Jason Day, the world's top-ranked golfer, attributed his withdrawal not to the risks to his own health and performance at the Olympics but to the risk it could present to his wife's future pregnancies and his future children, as Zika virus may remain in semen for months post-infection.

For many athletes who are well known in their sports and regularly compete in globally recognized competitions, skipping a risky Olympics may be an easier choice than for those who still need to build their careers. For athletes in less-visible sports, however, the Olympics may be their only chance to be seen on a global stage.

Obviously, the vast majority of athletes -- whether they voiced concerns about Zika or not -- chose to keep their spots in this year's Olympics. Several U.S. athletes have endured "Zika" chants during their competitions, due in part to publicly expressing concerns about the virus leading up to the games.

To help the situation, the IOC provided about 450,000 condoms to the athletes staying in the Olympic village, as protection can reduce the risk of spreading Zika virus between sexual partners.

When In Doubt, Listen to the Professionals

Those traveling to Rio for the Olympic Games share the athletes' concerns about contracting Zika or spreading the virus back home. But the 2016 Rio Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity that has likely enticed many spectators to take the plunge and make the trip, regardless of risk.

In the end, the WHO's response to the health experts' letter months ago may sum up the dilemma most succinctly: "The best way to reduce risk of disease is to follow public health and travel advice." That includes recommendations made by reputable health organizations such as the WHO and the CDC.

As long as travelers take the recommended preventive actions -- such as wearing the right clothing, using insect repellent, and practicing safe sex -- Zika in Rio isn't likely to be any more or less dangerous than other diseases travelers can catch while abroad, highlighting the increased spotlight that such a major media event as the Olympics sheds on the surrounding issues. Rather than let the media-driven hype govern their decision-making, travelers (as well as athletes) should listen to medical experts first -- and that goes for any similar health-based travel concerns.

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