Zika fears could ruin Rio Olympics

Alongside water pollution and security, spreading virus could deter visitors to XXI Olympiad

Less than six months before the start of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Zika virus is threatening to ruin the party. Scientists have found strong evidence the virus is causing microcephaly in newborns, and as research moves forward, the situation seems to be getting worse. The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), which is linked to the Brazilian government, has found the active virus to be present in saliva and urine, and the sexual transmission of Zika has been proven in the United States.

“The relationship between the Zika virus and microcephaly is still not clear. Studies are being done,” David Harley, a professor of epidemiology at the National University of Australia, said in an interview with Diálogo Chino. On February 2 Brazil’s Ministry of Health announced it was analysing 3,670 cases of microcephaly.

The Brazilian government has been doing whatever it can to combat the Zika virus, not only for the health of athletes and tourists, but also for its economy as more than US$10 billion has been invested in projects the Olympic Park, transport and associated projects. A task force has been created to eradicate breeding sites of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Teams will visit a total of 67 million buildings and homes to identify potential sources of further outbreaks and to advise residents on measures to protect themselves against the vector.

“The organisation is not advising anyone not to come to Rio de Janeiro. In the specific case of pregnant women, it is important to heed your doctor’s advice in order to greatly minimise the risk of contamination,” said João Grangeiro, the Rio 2016 Committee’s director of medical services.

However, this view is not shared by two New York University scientists who published an article in Forbes Magazine urging authorities to cancel the mega-event in Brazil. The following day, minister of sport George Hilton issued a press release saying: “The Rio 2016 Games will take full consideration of the health of all participants in the greatest celebration of world sport.” Though declaring an international emergency, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stopped short of recommending that people stop traveling to the 33 countries in the Americas with confirmed cases of Zika.

According to Professor Harley, it is still too early to tell if it will be dangerous, or best to avoid travelling to Brazil for the Olympics. “There are other more dangerous diseases transmitted by mosquitoes in Brazil, including malaria and dengue fever. Zika usually causes mild unspecified virus symptoms. The most important thing is to protect oneself from mosquito bites,” he advised.

The use of insect repellent and clothing that covers the body, especially for pregnant women, has been frequently recommended by Brazilian health authorities and those organising the Games. But in a city where average annual temperatures are around 24 degrees, this is problematic. And the 10,500 athletes representing 206 National Olympic Committees who will compete in 306 events taking place over 17 days in August have little choice over what they wear. The expected 305,000 tourists, on the other hand, retain the option to not make the trip.

“I don’t think there will be an impact [on the Olympics], mainly because that time of year [August] is the dry winter season, and we have no history of the mosquito being active during this period. The worst time of the year is summer, but we are taking all due precautions,” said a hopeful Eduardo Paes, Rio mayor, at the opening of the city’s Carnival celebrations last Friday.

As if the Zika virus weren’t enough, the Brazilian government still has to deal with two other serious problems: polluted water at aquatic venues and security, which is deteriorating alongside the economic crisis afflicting the country. In the case of pollution, officials promised everything would be resolved by the time the Olympics began. The security issues, however, date back to when the economy was growing at full tilt. “These are not Olympic issues,” is the customary response from Paes when asked how these questions will affect the Games.

Both the Bay of Guanabara and the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon are severely polluted. Although steps are being taken to tackle the problem, sewage from irregular settlements in 15 municipalities is flowing untreated into the Bay of Guanabara. “I assure you that the water samples will meet international standards,” Edes Fernandes de Oliveira, director of operations at the Rio Water and Sewage Company, told Diálogo Chino. He believes that even though they are behind schedule, 80% of projects related to sewage treatment and 51% of the main collector trunk will be ready in time for the event.

“Having the water free from contamination by a virus has never been established by any global health organisation or by the International Olympic Committee, nor was it required at any previous Olympiad, whether in Barcelona, Seoul, London, or Beijing,” Oliveira said in response to an investigation by Associated Press, which detected virus levels in water from the Bay of Guanabara at 1.7 million times above those considered hazardous on California beaches.

Measures are also being taken to improve the water quality in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. Illegal sewer connections send waste into flood runoff systems, and when it rains it ends up in the lagoon. A project called the “galeria de cintura” (belt gallery) – a series of gutters surrounding the lagoon – ameliorated the problem. Another project, run by WWF Brasil, WWF Netherlands and the Plastic Soup Foundation, aims to clean up the lagoon and reuse the plastic that flows into Guanabara from the Carioca river.