Rio Olympics and Zika: Stay or Go?

The Rio Olympics are almost upon us, and with mounting numbers of high-profile athletes announcing their withdrawal from the games for health prevention reasons, it’s time to decide—should you stay or should you go?

The answer to that remains a personal one, based on individual circumstances.

As of July 7, 2016, 143 cases of travel-related Zika virus, and one locally acquired case through sexual transmission, had been recorded in Canada. This figure includes at least seven pregnant women, but to date no cases of microcephaly (abnormally small head size in newborns) have occurred. However, public health officials are confident the actual numbers of pregnant women (the highest risk group) are higher, since reporting mechanisms don’t always capture information about pregnancy status.

In the continental U.S., over 1,100 cases of Zika virus infection have been recorded up to the beginning of July, with the first case of newborn microcephaly being reported in Harris County (Houston area), Texas. And just to complicate matters further, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported the first known case of female-to-male sexual transmission of Zika, a development that greatly increases the potential public health danger of infection.

Up to this point, it had been thought that Zika could only be sexually transmitted by men.

There have been no cases of Zika virus transmission via the Aedes aegypti mosquito in the continental U.S., although 14 cases of transmission through sexual contact among partners of individuals infected abroad have been reported.

And it appears to be the fear of transmission through sexual contact that accounts for most of the hesitancy about travel to Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika epidemic.

Public health warnings by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., and Public Health Canada all advise pregnant women, or those who might become pregnant, not to travel to areas of high Zika risk for fear of microcephaly and other complications among newborns. The risks for other groups are much more muted, since 80 per cent of people infected by Zika will likely not even know they have been infected, and among most of the remaining 20 per cent, the symptoms of infection will be relatively mild, lasting only a few days.

The outlier, however, is the possibility of transmission through sexual contact.

For example, should an Olympic athlete be infected by the virus while in Brazil, she or he might possibly pass it on to their partner upon returning home. And that risk remains for up to six months, according to public health experts, so couples will have to either be abstinent or use protection.

And so the Olympics in Rio will be without some of the world’s best athletes (golfers in particular, it seems, and even Canada’s own tennis star Milos Raonic), and possibly without a lot of spectators as well.

Advice: If you’re heading down to Rio, cover up, use reliable repellants on exposed skin, preferably containing DEET or Icaridin (Picardin in the U.S.), and stay indoors as much as possible during dusk, when mosquitos are more active.

But if you are pregnant or thinking of becoming so any time soon, why not stay home? Better safe than sorry.


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