August 8, 2016, by Guest Author

Zika virus and the Olympic Summer Games – any regrets?

Dr Janet Daly, Associate Professor in Veterinary Medicine & Science at The University of Nottingham, asks whether GB golfers were too cautious to stay away from Rio 2016

There has been much discussion in the lead up to the Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 about the risk Zika virus might pose to competitors and spectators. It is, of course, an individual decision whether or not to attend the Games, but a seemingly disproportionate number of golfers decided to stay away. Might they come to regret this decision (after all the last time golf featured at an Olympic Games was in 1904) or, with the benefit of hindsight, might their choices be vindicated?

Golf Club (foreground) and Pedra da Gavea (top right)

There are numerous factors to consider when evaluating the risks Zika virus poses to Olympians. The two major components are how likely it is that you will be infected and how much of an impact infection might have.

The Zika virus is not as contagious as, say, influenza

The Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and the Games are being held in Brazil’s winter season so mosquito numbers are likely to be relatively low. In addition, there has been extensive spraying of insecticides every 6 to 8 weeks in Rio de Janeiro and at all Olympic venues prior to the start of the games in an effort to eradicate what mosquitoes might be around. It could be argued though that it is harder to eradicate mosquitoes from a golf course, and the specially constructed Olympic course is already being occupied by a variety of wild animals. On the other hand, the species of mosquito thought to be mainly responsible for the spread of Zika virus is an urbanite.

Individual competitors can take measures to protect themselves against being bitten, including wearing clothing that covers as much skin as possible, not a problem for golfers. As golfers spend a lot of time outside during a tournament, they would also need to remember to re-apply insecticides on a regular basis.

The consequences of being infected with the Zika virus are not as devastating as infection with Ebola

Zika infection is mild for most people – in fact 4 out of 5 people won’t even realize they have been infected. There are very few deaths from Zika virus infection, to the extent that it has been noteworthy when a death has occurred, and usually the person had other health problems. However, some people (currently estimated to be about 1 in 4,000 or 5,000) develop Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) as a result of Zika virus infection. This is a form of muscle paralysis that can cause breathing difficulties leading to sufferers having to spend time in hospital on a ventilator. Although most people recover, it can take some time and can be a very distressing condition.

The most devastating effect of Zika virus infection is the association with microcephaly in babies if a mother has been infected when pregnant (particularly in the early stages of pregnancy when the brain is developing). Advisory information from health authorities such as the World Health Organization is consistent – pregnant women should avoid travelling to countries where Zika virus is circulating. To complicate matters further though, it is apparent that when men become infected with Zika virus, live virus can be remain in the semen, and therefore be passed on to a woman during unprotected sex, for quite some time. This has led to the recommendation by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that men who have been to Zika-affected country without any apparent problem should nonetheless practice safe sex for 2 months after their return. If they have had symptoms consistent with Zika virus infection or have had a confirmed infection, they should not attempt to father children until 6 months after their illness. Thus even suspected infection would have a considerable impact on the lives of those planning to have children in the near future, and this was cited as the reason for not going to the Games by several Olympians, including golfers Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Lee-Anne Pace.

What of the future?

In terms of the Olympic Summer Games, it was a case of unfortunate timing that Brazil became the epicentre of the emergence of Zika virus on the American continent in the year prior to the 2016 event. One study using mathematical modelling to attempt to predict how the Zika virus epidemic will unfold has suggested that as the number of people who have been exposed to Zika virus and therefore developed immunity expands, the current epidemic will die down over the next 3 years or so. However, large epidemics could recur in future (due to a loss of immunity over time). In the meantime, Zika virus is spreading northwards into Florida, renowned for numerous high stakes golf tournaments.

Posted in atmosphereRio 2016