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Zika virus threatens Olympics
(Photo credit: Gabriel Jabur/Agência Brasília)

By James Mejia

2016 was supposed to be the year of the comeback for Brazil. One of the world’s top ten economies, past years have been marked by massive inflation, growing unemployment and flailing exports. Once celebrated energy independence founded by increased domestic oil generation and ethanol production has taken a back seat to a massive corruption scandal at the state-owned oil company, Petrobras, threatening to take down elected politicians and construction company managers at the highest levels – including Brazil’s Worker’s Party President, Dilma Rouseff.

Brazil was banking on a strong Carnival tourism season, and the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics to buoy a tourist, if not economic recovery. For a country reliant on tourism for approximately 10 percent of its Gross Domestic Product1, global attractions like the 5-day Carnival celebration and 2.5 week Summer Olympics were designed to jumpstart a stagnant region. Instead of global media reporting on Brazil as the 2016 party and sport capital of the world, the country finds itself best known as the center of the Zika virus outbreak.

Carnival and Tourism

Between Zika and sour economics, some local jurisdictions found it difficult to justify funding Carnival festivities. Ironically, the virus has hit hardest in the poorest and least equipped northeastern regions of the country. In some municipalities, like Caprivari in Sao Paulo, government leaders chose to divert Carnival funds to help eradicate virus-carrying mosquitoes. The annual expenditure of $25,000 to host Samba parades was used to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds. [2]

The celebration took place as usual for many partiers, most ignoring prevalent public health messages to limit skin exposure. In Rio, home of the largest Carnival celebrations, health workers were stationed at hundreds of block parties throughout the city.

For tourists, the tact is a bit different. Denverite Kelly Maher will be married in May and just cancelled her honeymoon to Argentina. Even though the virus hasn’t been recorded in the country other than one case imported from elsewhere in South America, bordering Brazil is a bit too close for comfort. As a couple hoping to start a family, Maher and her fiancée, “…don’t want to take any chances.” Instead, they will look to travel elsewhere – somewhere without virus-carrying mosquitoes – or will delay their honeymoon.

Rio Olympic preparations

When Denver native Eric Petersen put marketing plans together in January of 2015, for his company’s Olympic presence in Rio de Janeiro, the Zika virus had not yet been identified as dangerous and spreading. With Brazil as the epicenter of the epidemic, the Lululemon executive has adopted a cautious perspective. “We are in a wait and see mode. I don’t see cutting back on any of our plans unless the outbreak gets worse. Even so, we will likely not send any employees who are pregnant or who might get pregnant,” said Petersen from company headquarters in Vancouver. “The Brazilian government knows the importance of the [Olympic] games and I’m sure they will do everything to make it as safe as possible.”

Petersen’s views are consistent with many making preparations for the Olympic Games. While plans are not being cancelled, company representatives are closely observing the path of the virus spread.

News about the Zika virus has halted the non-stop news cycle about Olympic stadium and venue preparations and pressure on Brazil to be prepared as the world’s host. Unfortunately, the diversion is unwelcome. Yet one more obstacle for the Brazilian government when they are least financed to deal with it, at a time with shaky politics and when all resources should be pointed at a successful Olympics, the country has been plagued by a pest, a dangerous virus-carrying pest.

Colorado studies Zika

When asked about the virus, Denver infectious disease doctor Marinka Kartalja explained that the term ‘Zika’ comes from the region of the same name in Uganda. First noticed in the 1940’s when scientists studied yellow fever in monkeys, Kartalja explains that much like other pandemic disease, “Zika is so dangerous because it does not manifest the same symptoms in all people and many infected don’t exhibit symptoms at all.”

Kartalja has many friends working on infectious diseases at the Center for Disease Control in Fort Collins, a facility that has been crucial for studying all aspects of the disease. Underscoring the importance of the laboratory, U.S. Senators from Colorado Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet jointly toured in early February, to learn about their findings and future work. In press statements after the visit, both senators encouraged continued funding for the facility and thanked CDC scientists for their important work.

Fort Collins was also in the news for the revelations of Dr. Brian Foy, a Colorado State University field scientist and professor who purportedly infected his wife with the Zika virus after a field trip to Senegal. In an interview with KUSA Channel 9, Foy relayed that he became symptomatic with headaches and rash, but a test for suspected dengue came back negative. When a friend at the CDC suggested testing for Zika, that test proved positive. Foy maintains that the only way his wife could have become infected was through sexual contact because his physical contact with his children did not cause any illness for them.

Symptoms and transmission of Zika

According to the Center for Disease Control, only one in five infected will become mildly sick within a couple days to a week of being bitten by an infected mosquito. The ‘aedes’ mosquitoes that can transmit Zika can also transmit dengue. These mosquitoes are more likely to bite during the day than at night and infection occurs when the mosquito bites an infected human and subsequently bites other people. Most will not know they have the virus. Symptoms include rash, red eyes, fever and joint pain.

Recently cases have surfaced where the virus has reportedly been transmitted through sexual contact, which the CDC says it is still studying, and it has been confirmed that mothers can transfer in utero or after birth.

[1] Forbes, Here’s Why Brazil’s Economy Is Getting Killed, Kenneth Rapoza, November 21, 2015

[2] International Business Times, Rio Carnival 2016: Zika virus and economic crisis cast shadow over Brazil’s big party, Orlando Crowcroft, February 4, 2016.





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