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Zika casts shadow over Rio Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO — Already under fire for shoddy facilities, sewage-filled sailing venues and soaring costs, the Rio Olympics have taken another blow to the head — researchers now fear the world’s biggest sporting event might turn out to be the ticking bomb that sends the Zika virus around the world.

An Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen on human hand in a laboratory of the International Training and Medical Research Training Center (CIDEIM) in Cali, Colombia, on Jan 28, 2016. Photo: Reuters

An Aedes aegypti mosquito is seen on human hand in a laboratory of the International Training and Medical Research Training Center (CIDEIM) in Cali, Colombia, on Jan 28, 2016. Photo: Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO — Already under fire for shoddy facilities, sewage-filled sailing venues and soaring costs, the Rio Olympics have taken another blow to the head — researchers now fear the world’s biggest sporting event might turn out to be the ticking bomb that sends the Zika virus around the world.

Zika, transmitted by mosquitoes, causes flu-like symptoms in adults, who usually make a full recovery. However, it has been linked to birth defects in babies born to affected mothers.

Brazil is seen as the epicentre of the outbreak, with 1.5 million people having contracted the virus and thousands of reported cases of babies being born recently with brain damage and abnormally small heads. This has led to athletes and tourists being told to carefully weigh up their decision to travel to Brazil for August’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Zika has spread to more than 20 nations and territories in the western hemisphere, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), illustrating how quickly the epidemic can expand, even without a big international gathering like the Rio Olympics.

The fears over Zika are merely the latest challenge to the Games. Sailors have complained angrily about competing in the city’s sewage-infested bay. Prosecutors have asserted that builders paid bribes to win contracts for Olympic venues. Clashes have broken out over evictions to make way for Olympic projects. Deep spending cuts have come as Brazil reels from its worst economic slump in decades.

“Plagued by so many problems, Rio is clearly in a league of its own among host cities of the Olympics in recent memory,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economics scholar at Smith College in the United States.

While ticket sales had already been disappointing organisers, concerns are growing that travellers from other countries could cancel plans to visit because of Zika.

“People have called to ask, ‘If this explodes, how would I cancel my trip?’” said Anbritt Stengele, president of Sports Traveler, a travel company in Chicago that specialises in packages for major sporting events. She said that about 15 per cent of her clients who had booked trips for the Olympics had called in recent days to ask about the Zika virus and the possibility of modifying their trips.

“It’s a tricky situation for us, 
because everything is paid for in advance — airfare, hotels, ground transportation,” said Stengele. She said most of the holiday groups travelling to the Olympics included women and families with children.

“This is a completely different demographic (compared with the largely male tourists who attended the 2014 World Cup). The Olympics is about families,” she said.

The Australian, Russian, American and British Olympic teams have all said they are monitoring the situation carefully.

David Hughes, the Australian team’s medical director, said: “Following the recently updated guidelines, any team members who are pregnant at the time of the Games need to consider the risks very carefully before deciding whether to proceed with travel to Brazil.”

Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s Sports Minister, said his country was ­“employing all protective measures” to assist its athletes.

A British Olympic Association spokesperson said they were watching the situation closely.

“As part of Team GB’s overall planning, our medical team has been liaising with specialists at the London School of (Hygiene &) Tropical Medicine, to ensure that team members are given the most up-to-date travel medicine advice, which includes information on bite-prevention strategies,” they said. “This information has already been shared with all sports and it will be continually updated prior to departure for the Olympic Games.”

Patrick Sandusky, spokesman for the US Olympic Committee, 
also said they were monitoring the situation, telling the Washington Post they were also “taking steps to ensure that our delegation and those affiliated with Team USA are aware of the CDC’s recommendations regarding travel to Brazil”.

Brazilian researchers believe Zika came to their country during another major sports event — the 2014 World Cup — when hundreds of thousands of visitors flowed 
into Brazil. Virus trackers here said the strain raging in Brazil probably came from Polynesia, site of an outbreak at that time.

But the WHO said it “would be very, very unlikely” it would advise against travelling to Brazil for the Games. Brazil had begun spraying potential mosquito breeding sites ahead of Carnival, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people.

And Mario Andrada, a spokesman for the Rio Olympics organising committee, told The New York Times that there had been no discussions about cancelling the Games or moving them to another city because of Zika.

He added that teams were reviewing Olympic venues daily to eliminate problems such as stagnant water where mosquitoes can breed. Andrada said officials were also seeking to work on the “psychological aspect” of athletes being fearful about getting Zika by guaranteeing a supply of mosquito repellent and by keeping teams informed.

“The risk is no joke, so we will maintain this inspection programme until the end of the Paralympics,” he said. AGENCIES

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