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Zika prevention, Olympic effect
(Photo courtesy: CDC Global)

By James Mejia

If Brazil is sick at home with the Zika Virus, then bordering countries are neighbors worried about contracting the disease. With nearly a thousand cases by spring 2016 linking Brazilian Zika cases with microcephaly, a congenital birth defect manifested in smaller than normal head size, Latin American countries have sprung into action to ensure the disease does not spread in their regions.

Earlier this year, Peru had only one case of Zika Virus and fought against the disease taking hold by eliminating standing water, a popular breeding ground for mosquitoes spreading the virus. Peruvian public works employees fumigated with regularity bus terminals and college campuses. Argentine households have taken to buying live frogs and toads since health officials admitted that fumigation only kills live mosquitoes but not their offspring.

Uruguay’s efforts to thwart the disease have been very successful. Public health officials in the country’s capital of Montevideo initiated a house to house campaign this spring, testing for the virus and handing out pamphlets warning against the disease and suggesting ways to avoid mosquitoes. A public health campaign on city streets is hard to ignore. Stickers inside buses and street advertisements feature pictures of the dreaded Aedes Aegypti and preventative measures guarding against the spread of disease. Uruguay reported their first case of Zika in April – brought there from a man who had recently contracted the disease in Rio de Janeiro before coming home.

The Uruguayan national soccer team traveled to Recife, Brazil, in the middle of the country’s eastern coast to play Brazil in a World Cup qualifying match in March. The team was careful in selecting a hotel with “tightly sealed windows” and a ventilation system designed to keep out insects. At the time, players were warned by team management to, “use mosquito repellents, bring long-sleeve shirts and avoid being out in the early morning or evening.”[1]

Zika in the United States

Closer to home, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is trying to stop spread of the disease without additional funding requested by President Obama. With the United States Congress unable to come to a funding agreement, U.S. health officials worry that their successful efforts at preventing U.S.-born incidence of the virus can’t last forever. The $1.9 billion requested by the president has thus far been held hostage by a recalcitrant Congress just when legislative summer break is about to start and summer mosquito breeding will hit its peak.

Worry about the disease spreading in the United States is apparent. The first link on the CDC web site provides information about Zika and two of the first four captions address the disease. CDC reports that all but 5 states in the north and Alaska have reported cases of the virus. Even though the national agency lists no ‘locally acquired mosquito-borne cases,’ they list 1,132 ‘travel-associated cases’ and ‘one laboratory acquired case.’ Fourteen cases have been reported in the U.S. as sexually transmitted and five cases where Guillain-Barre syndrome is apparent. Aside from the more reported genetic birth defect, microcephaly, associated with Zika, Guillain-Barre syndrome is also thought to be correlated. The condition is reported by the Mayo Clinic as ‘a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves.’ First symptoms include weakness and tingling in the body’s extremities that can eventually paralyze the entire body.

Zika Affects Olympic Participation

Unlike the Uruguayans, Argentines and Peruvians who have no choice but to live next to the home of the South American Zika outbreak in Brazil, the list of would-be Olympians who would have qualified for the games but have decided not to play is growing longer. Many cite scheduling problems or injury which may be subtle ways of not addressing what might be the real concern – exposure to the Zika virus.

Tejay van Garderen is one of the top U.S. cyclists currently taking part in the Tour de France – a 23-day race in France and surrounding countries, considered to be the most difficult and most prestigious contest in the sport. It would seem that the race’s conclusion at the end of July would leave van Garderen in optimal shape for the August Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but Tejay will skip it. With a pregnant wife at home, van Garderen is clear his decision not to participate in the Rio games is because of fear of contact with the Zika virus.

In a statement issued by USA Cycling, van Garderen directly attributed his absence to apprehension regarding the virus, “Although the risks associated with the Zika virus can be minimal and precautions can be taken, my wife Jessica is pregnant, and I don’t want to risk bringing anything back that could potentially have an effect. If circumstances were different I would have loved to be selected again to represent the USA, but my family takes priority and it’s a decision that I’m completely comfortable with. I hope that I’ll be in the position to race at the 2020 Olympic Games.”

Other athletes foregoing the Olympic Games citing scheduling include basketball players LeBron James and Steph Curry.

Some Olympians will take a precautionary approach but still participate. The 44-year-old men’s indoor volleyball coach, John Speraw, believes this Olympics could be a once in a lifetime opportunity as is the chance to have another child. He told the New York Times that he will be warehousing sperm in case anything in Rio prevents him from fatherhood. His tactics are also being considered by several male athletes across the globe.

In one of the most unique approaches to Olympic participation, the country of South Korea is sending their athletes in Zika-proof gear. Besides body-covering long-sleeved shirts, jackets and long pants, the lightweight outfits feature mosquito repellent built into the fabric. Of note, the country uniforms will only be used for opening and closing ceremonies. Athletic performance gear will not be modified in any way but their athletes will be encouraged to use spray-on mosquito repellent during competition.

[1] Uruguay Plans to Guard Against Zika Virus for Brazil Match, Associated Press, February 4, 2016





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