Friday’s opening ceremony will kick off the Rio 2016 Olympics, but the biggest health story associated with the Games has already made headlines for months: the Zika virus. As Rio de Janiero remains in the midst of a Zika virus outbreak, several athletes have made the decision to skip the Olympics, citing concerns for their health.
While the virus has been around for a long time, the general public’s interest in it exploded in early 2016 when reports from Brazil emerged about large numbers of babies being born with a birth defect called microcephaly, which literally translates to “small head.”
As a result of this news—and recent developments of Zika outbreaks in Miami, Fla.—many people have questions about travel to tropical and subtropical areas where mosquitos can live and breed year round. The disease itself is rarely serious, but the knowledge that Zika can cause birth defects and can be sexually transmitted are two factors driving concern. When stories like this emerge, the first place I go is to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website. The CDC is the world’s premier organization at tracking infectious disease threats and this link to Zika is excellent. It is also updated regularly. A few highlights:
• Most people who get Zika don’t experience symptoms and for those who do it is a mild flu-like syndrome.
• The disease can be prevented by using standard precautions against mosquito bites, including sprays, protective clothing and mosquito nets.
• For those who believe they might have contracted Zika and are worried about transmission to a partner, condom use for six months is recommended.
After Rio, Zika is likely to continue to be a big story as the disease spreads. There are already reported cases in Florida and a full-blown outbreak in Puerto Rico, and similar outbreaks are likely in other tropical areas in the Western Hemisphere. The good news is that there is already a Zika vaccine being tested, and if effective, it is likely to be fast-tracked for approval.
The Zika story also highlights the large number of mosquito-borne diseases that are out there and some of the risks of traveling to places where they are common, which brings up a teachable moment for elite and everyday athletes alike. Many people travel to exotic locations for vacation, recreation or athletic challenges. When these locations are in tropical or subtropical areas, or if they are in less developed areas of the world, you should first check the CDC traveler’s guide. It is interactive and full of information that you can use to learn about the risks of where you plan to travel. There are vaccines, preventive drugs and other strategies that can reduce the risk of infectious disease, such as travel clinics that can provide help. (The International Society of Travel Medicine maintains a searchable database of clinics.)
Zika also highlights a general category of diseases called Emerging Infectious Diseases. These include things like especially nasty forms of the flu and the Ebola virus, which dominated the news in 2014 and ’15. There is concern from organizations as diverse as the U.S. Department of Defense and scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health that climate change will make this problem worse, so expect to hear about more stories about diseases like Zika and Ebola in the coming years.
A lot of strategies needed to ensure peak performance for both recreational and elite athletes are about using common sense and following well established guidelines about exercise in the heat, hydration, nutrition and recovery. The same is true for infectious diseases and travel. This is serious business but the good news is that the resources you need to get more information and manage any risks associated with travel are click of the mouse away. As always a little bit of up front preparation can limit the risks of catastrophes and let you make the most of your travel to exotic locations.
Michael Joyner, is an expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic, these views are his own. You can follow him on twitter @DrMJoyner.