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Zika And The Olympics – 7 Things You Need to Know Now

Protection from Zika

This August, thousands of athletes from 115 nations will be competing for laurels in Rio de Janeiro, venue of the 2016 Olympics.  Popular sports-persons such as Usain Bolt, Serena Williams and Bradley Higgins have confirmed attendance.  Nevertheless, one common theme, competing for our attention, and making headlines alongside the Olympics is Zika Virus.

The recent outbreak of Zika Virus infection has generated much concern and controversies globally. Top scientists hold very different views and have offered conflicting opinions on Zika and the Olympics[1].

This has taken its toll on athletes too. In the past few weeks, 7 of the world’s top golfers including Jason Day, the World’s number one golfer have pulled out and some teams have decided to compete in ‘Zika proof’ clothing.

Would you be in Brazil or any other Zika affected country this August?  Should you be bothered about the Zika Virus?  Are you at risk during or after the Olympics? Consider 7 important things you need to know about the  Zika virus.


What is Zika Virus?

This virus was discovered in Zika forest, Uganda in 1947. It is usually transmitted through the bite of infected mosquitoes, commonly Aedes specie known for biting during the day and night.

Up until last year, Zika infections were few and far between. However, following the outbreak in Northern Brazil in May, 2015, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of infections and complications. In view of this, World Health Organization (WHO) declared it as a public health emergency in February, 2016. According to a July, 2016 WHO update, 48 countries have been affected since 2015.  In Brazil alone, up to 1,687 cases have been confirmed and cases of Zika related death have been reported.

Sadly, no cure or vaccines exist, though trials are on-going.


How is it spread?


This is mainly through the bite of an infected mosquito. Unfortunately, persons bitten by an infected mosquito may not be aware of the presence of the virus in the blood until complications sets in. While the virus is in an individual’s bloodstream, mosquitoes bite and easily spread it to other persons.

Sex is another known means of transmission.  Do you know that the virus may remain in semen for months? That means that an infected individual may still be able to spread the virus through sexual intercourse.  Males and females are capable of passing the infections to their sexual partners[ii].

Furthermore, it is also possible to spread the virus via blood transfusions and from mother to child during pregnancy.


What are the common symptoms of Zika Infections?

Most people experience mild symptoms and are unaware of the infection. Commonly, fever, rash, joint pains, red eyes, muscle pain and vomiting may occur.


What are the common complications?

Thousands of babies have been born with birth defects following exposure to Zika virus during pregnancy. Microcephaly, a sign of incomplete brain development may occur. This is associated with intellectual disability. In some cases, Guillain Barre Syndrome, a condition characterized by muscle weakness and paralysis may occur.


How can you protect yourself from Zika Virus Infection?

Protect yourself from mosquito bites


  • Insect repellent:  Some repellents are safe and effective for pregnant and breastfeeding women to use. Those that contain DEET, oil-of-lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane–diol are relatively effective. However, avoid repellents on babies younger than 2 months. Wearing clothing that covers arms and legs may help protect babies and young children from insect bites.
  • Protect your clothing: Treat items such as socks and tents with permethrin.
  • Protect your home from mosquitoes – Use window and door screens.  Insecticide treated mosquito bed nets may also be used.    Ensure that any standing water near the house is removed. This disrupts the breeding of mosquitoes around the house.

   Adhere to the ABC prevention strategy. Abstinence, Be faithful, Use a Condom to reduce the risk of becoming infected through sexual intercourse. This protects the individual against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmissible infections like gonorrhea and syphilis.


What can you do to Prevent the Spread of Zika?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  everyone that travels to Zika affected areas should try to prevent the spread by taking some precautions. This reduces the risk of local transmission when the person returns to his country.

Are you returning from a Zika virus infection prone area? Then vigorously prevent mosquito bites for up to 3 weeks   to be sure the virus is no longer in the blood.  If infected, consider abstaining from sex or using condoms for up to 6 months after the infection.  This is because the virus remains in the semen for a long time.


Is it safe to Travel to Rio or other Zika affected countries?

You should seriously weigh the benefits and risks before making a decision.  For pregnant women, traveling to Brazil and other Zika affected areas should be avoided as much as possible. This is because of serious childhood neurological complications that may occur if infected.

The months of August and September are usually cold and dry, making them unfavorable  for mosquitoes. Therefore, it is expected that the risk of transmission via mosquito bites would be reduced[iii]. However, this does not preclude the risk of infection through other sources. Having a clear evidence based prevention plan before, during and after the Olympics should be your priority.

With close to a million travelers, including thousands of athletes moving to Brazil for the Olympics, staying up to date on the course, prevention and spread of Zika virus is worthwhile as scientists struggle to resolve this public health emergency.

[i] Codeço C, Villela D, Gomes MF, Bastos L, Cruz O, Struchiner C, Carvalho LM, Coelho F Zika is not a reason for missing the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro: response to the open letter of Dr Attaran and colleagues to Dr Margaret Chan, Director – General, WHO, on the Zika threat to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Mem Inst Oswaldo Cruz. 2016 Jun;111(6):414-5. doi: 10.1590/0074-02760160003.

[ii] Davidson A, Slavinski S, Komoto K, Rakeman J, Weiss D. Suspected Female-to-Male Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus – New York City, 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2016 Jul 22;65(28):716-7. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6528e2

[iii] Grills A, Morrison S, Nelson B, Miniota J, Watts A, Cetron MS. Projected Zika Virus Importation and Subsequent Ongoing Transmission after Travel to the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games – Country-Specific Assessment, July 2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2016 Jul 22;65(28):711-5. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6528e1.


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