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The Olympics and the Zika Virus

This summer, athletes from more than 200 nations will gather on the world’s largest sporting stage at the Olympic Games. Two years after hosting the World Cup, a comparable sporting event in both scale and spectator diversity, Brazil will be the host. Prior to the 2014 World Cup, concerns were raised about Brazil’s preparedness as a host nation. Many cited the nation’s ongoing anti-World Cup street protests, ill-equipped electrical infrastructure and transportation services, repeated delays in stadium construction, and health concerns related to mosquito-borne and airborne illnesses.

In 2014, the CDC recognized Dengue fever and H1N1 influenza as the most pressing health concerns and promptly issued health warnings to prospective tourists. Many of these same issues have resurfaced for this summer’s Olympic Games. Yet, the emergence of Zika virus in South and Central America—Brazil being the epicenter of the outbreak—has taken center stage as the primary concern for natives, tourists, and athletes alike.

Zika fever, also known as Zika virus disease, is caused by the Zika virus and is primarily spread to humans through a bite from an infected mosquito. Zika virus may also be transmitted during blood transfusions, sex, and pregnancy. The symptoms of Zika fever are typically short-lived (3–7 days), mild and non-specific, consisting of fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes (conjunctivitis). Due to the mild nature of the disease, individuals might not even realize they have been infected. Once infected, one will likely gain immunity to future infections. Zika fever is treated by rest. Traveling athletes and tourists should maintain awareness of the latest CDC recommendations in order to stay as safe as possible. The greatest concern with Zika virus is that transmission during pregnancy may result in microcephaly, a medical condition that features an undeveloped brain and an abnormally small head in the newborn. Accordingly, the CDC has issued travel advisories focused on protecting pregnant women or women who may become pregnant. Such women should avoid traveling to Brazil. Furthermore, men who have been in areas with ongoing Zika transmission should abstain from sex with a pregnant partner or use barrier contraception.

The International Olympic Committee has confirmed that this summer’s games would neither be postponed nor cancelled. The Brazilian government has increased implementation of control strategies to protect both athletes and tourists. Additionally, Olympic athletes will be provided mosquito netting, insect repellent, and barrier contraception to lessen the likelihood of infection and transmission.

The Zika outbreak has begun to slow as winter begins in the Southern Hemisphere and cooler temperatures limit the mosquito population. Traveling athletes and tourists should maintain awareness of the latest CDC recommendations in order to stay as safe as possible. Let the games begin!

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