What to know about the Zika virus that is causing concern ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

By Chris Chavez
May 06, 2016

The Zika virus has become a major point of concern ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which are set to begin Aug. 5. Before the Olympic cauldron is lit inside the historic Maracanã Stadium, the virus has become an issue another sport—baseball.

Major League Baseball has moved a two-game series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins, originally scheduled to be played at Puerto Rico's Hiram Bithorn Stadium, amid growing concern over the virus.

Last week, the CDC noted 683 confirmed Zika infections in Puerto Rico. The latest findings also revealed that a 70-year-old man from Puerto Rico died in February after complications due to the virus, which marked the first death related to the infection in a U.S. territory.

As of May 4, 471 travel-associated Zika virus disease cases were reported in the United States. But tropical areas in particular are susceptible to Zika outbreak, putting the Rio Olympics and other sporting events in warm climates at risk. 

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History of Zika

The mosquito-borne virus was first isolated in 1947 in a monkey from the Zika Forest of Uganda. It re-appeared at the end of 2015 in Brazil. More than one million people have been infected or diagnosed with the disease since its reemergence.

The first outbreak for Zika took place in Micronesia in 2007, which resulted in several cases in other Pacific islands. But the virus outbreak in the Americas is different.

In February, the World Health Organization declared a state of emergency just six months before millions of people will flock to Brazil to watch the world’s greatest athletes compete.

A ‘very tenacious’ virus

The virus, which is spread primarily by Aedes mosquito bites, was long considered benign by scientists. Even now, most people with Zika won't be aware they are infected with the disease, as symptoms—such as fever, joint pain, rash, muscle pain and red eyes—aren't usually apparent, according to the CDC. Deaths are rare, and most who get the disease do not have to be hospitalized. But the virus is still a major concern, particularly because it can cause birth defects. 

Pregnant women with Zika have a chance of giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a rare birth defect in which a baby is born with neurological issues, including an abnormally small head. There is no cure for microcephaly, and at the moment there is no vaccine or cure for Zika.

Zika has also been found in semen and can be sexually transmitted by men, but it is still undetermined whether women can spread Zika to their sexual partners.

Researchers have also found that Zika may trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), which is a rare condition in which the body's immune system attacks a part of the nervous system that controls muscle strength. It provokes muscle weakness in the legs and arms but is not very lethal.

"The Zika virus is very tricky, very tenacious, very difficult," WHO chief Margaret Chan said on Feb. 23. "We should expect this is going to be a long journey."

Areas most at risk

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has identified 49 countries and territories that have cases of infected people.

The CDC has also issued alerts for people traveling to six regions of the Western Hemisphere. Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela are the notable countries with notice for South America.

Though the Aedes mosquito does have a presence in Hawaii, the CDC has said that people living in Hawaii and other warm areas of the U.S. are not currently at risk, unless a sexual partner has traveled to an area with high concentration of Zika transmission. 

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How countries are responding

El Salvador and Brazil have gone as far as asking women not to get pregnant until 2018. In Brazil, some officials are spraying pesticide and urging people to get rid of any containers that may contain old standing water, which tends to attract mosquitos.

The WHO is asking people to use insect repellent, wear clothes that cover as much skin as possible, use screens on windows and sleep under mosquito nets, while the CDC recommends refraining from traveling to countries where the disease is most prominent. In addition to using repellant, the CDC also suggests that men who are located in a country with Zika or have visited one recently to abstain from having sex or use proper protection.

On May 12, WHO issued new guidelines and precautions for tourists that plan on attending the Olympics.

If an individual has plans of traveling to Brazil for the Olympics, the CDC recommends to schedule a health appointment at least four to six weeks before the trip and discuss any vaccines and medicines before traveling.

Meanwhile, the NIH is working to develop a vaccine

What are athletes saying?

There's no mass movement to avoid Rio this summer, but several athletes have expressed concern over the Zika virus.

In February, U.S. women’s national soccer team goalie Hope Solo told SI’s Grant Wahl that she was contemplating would not go to the Olympics due to her concern over Zika, though she ultimately decided she would participate in the Games. 


Olympic decathlon champion and world record holder Ashton Eaton has been paying attention to headlines and still believes that he would head to the Olympics despite the concern.

“I think what the mindset is, especially for an athlete, is I’m willing to pretty much risk anything to go to the Olympic Games,” Eaton told the Bend Bulletin. “Maybe this is just something where people are freaking out over nothing.”

Others are more uneasy. At a women's wrestling team test event in Brazil, world champion Adeline Gray discussed the outbreak and her level of concern.

“This is something that the people of Brazil have to deal with on a daily basis,” Gray said, according to NBC. “The fact that I’m only here for a short time. It’s not really fair for me to freak out about it to that extent. I think if I was planning to have a child in the next month, I would be extremely uneasy about this.”

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Silver medalist diver David Boudia competed at a test event earlier in the year. Before heading to Brazil, he canceled plans for his wife to join him on the trip.

“Once the CDC came out with this Zika virus awareness, it was a big break on [travel plans for wife, Sonnie],” Boudia told WTHR in Indianapolis. “There was 35,000 cases of babies suffering from small-head syndrome from that virus. That’s just something we are not prepared to do.”

This week, Miami Marlins players voted on whether or not they wanted to travel to Puerto Rico to play their series. The results of the vote were not immediately disclosed, but details were passed along to MLB and the player's union. The level of concern among players reportedly grew after the team listened to a presentation from the CDC. The Pirates were also reportedly concerned about the trip. 

On May 6, MLB announced the two–game series would be moved from San Juan to Miami.

A doctor's grave warning

Dr. Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa and the Harvard Public Health Review warned that 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro should not proceed because of the Zika virus outbreak.

In February, the International Olympic Committee declared Rio a “safe environment” for the Games just before Brazil’s Ministry of Health declared Zika a notifiable disease. Rio de Janeiro is the most infected of all cities as 26,000 cases have been recorded. Attaran puts Rio “at the heart” of the Zika problem.

There are also fears of the virus going global as 500,000 foreign tourists are expected to travel to Brazil for the Olympics. Some may get infected and then the virus, which can be sexually transmitted, could be spread upon return to home countries. A quick spread due to the tourism of the Olympics will only make inventing new technologies to stop it more difficult.​

“Nothing of the sort can be said for the world’s population whose health is at stake,” Attaran writes. “For while the financial victims can recover their losses or even go bankrupt and rebuild, for the global health victims there is no such thing as going “bankrupt” on a virus or pandemic.”

Attaran closes his argument by saying that not stopping the virus or Olympics goes against what the Summer Games stands for: “Olympism seeks to create … social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”.

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