How Problematic is Zika for Olympians and Fans?

by Cheyna Roth

The 2016 Summer Olympics have taken on a decidedly cautionary tone as players and fans face the very real concern of the Zika virus as they make plans to travel to Rio de Janeiro. Some athletes are taking a pass, while many of us at home are left to question: How bad is Zika in Rio? Specifically, is it worth the risk of going to the Olympics?

The Zika virus originated in Brazil in an outbreak that has spread to over 60 countries and territories. Between February and April 2016 alone, Brazil's health ministry registered 91,387 likely cases of the Zika virus, as noted in a BBC News report. The Zika virus is spread primarily through infected mosquito bites, but it can also be contracted through sex with an infected man, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Death is a rarity, and symptoms are generally limited to fever, rash and joint pain. The real risk with Zika comes with infection while pregnant, which poses the potentially serious birth defects. But, if a woman is not pregnant and infected with Zika, she should be safe from birth defects in the future.

In a June letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 200 doctors and scientists expressed their concern for travelers spreading the disease. The WHO letter said, "An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic." Another cause for concern is that only 1 in 5 people actually show signs of Zika when they have it, meaning you could have it, not know it, and spread the virus or become pregnant.

Not too long ago, the WHO declared an international health emergency over the spread of the virus. In the wake of the Olympics, the WHO said the Olympic Games should carry on, but travelers need to take precautions and traveling while pregnant is a definite no-no. Officials said August in Rio is midwinter, so the risk of mosquito bite and infection is pretty low. In January, the International Olympic Committee declared Rio a "safe environment."

Still, many athletes are bowing out of the games citing Zika concerns for themselves or for loved ones. And they are backed by scientists, like those at the Harvard Public Health Review, who believe the games should be moved or postponed.