Going Viral

The Zika virus spreading through Brazil and the Americas will do more than the Olympics ever could to bring the world together
February 15, 2016

THE OLYMPICS ARE supposed to make our world seem smaller, to underscore the things we have in common—and therein lies the irony of the mosquito-borne Zika virus spreading through Brazil and much of the Americas less than six months before the Rio Olympics. It's as if the pestilence materialized to one-up the Games themselves. Last week the World Health Organization certified Zika as a "public health emergency of international concern," putting the disease on the same level as Ebola in 2014. The designation touched off a parallel outbreak of anxiety, one that may do more to foster solidarity among humanity than anything the IOC could hope to achieve with the Olympic movement.

Global worry follows as much from what we don't know about Zika as from what we do. The virus was discovered nearly 70 years ago in a monkey in Uganda. Yet infected people showed relatively mild symptoms and usually recovered within a week, so researchers back-burnered work into Zika's epidemiology as well as the development of a vaccine, which remains years and hundreds of millions of dollars away. Here's what we think we know: The virus seems to lead to microcephaly—abnormal smallness of the head—in newborns; it has been associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a potentially fatal autoimmune condition marked by a spreading paralysis in men and women of all ages; and there is now evidence that it can be transmitted sexually. Last week officials in greater Dallas confirmed that a resident had contracted the disease from a sexual partner just back from Venezuela. Suddenly those obligatory pre-Olympic references to condom stockpiles in the athletes' village take on relevance beyond the usual nudge and wink.

Charles Chiu, director of the Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center at UC San Francisco, believes the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil accelerated Zika's spread. "Now that the virus is endemic [there], the worry is that [people] may come to Brazil for the Olympics and then take it back to their home countries," he says. If an infected Olympic visitor were to return home and be bitten by a mosquito, that airborne "vector" could spread the virus with its next bite.

So far the Olympic establishment is reacting with its usual the-Games-must-go-on bravado. But comments by IOC president Thomas Bach (he's "very confident" that the Rio Olympics will be safe for athletes and spectators alike) and Jacques Wagner, the chief of staff to Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff ("zero risk if you are not a pregnant woman") should be regarded with a dose of skepticism.

With its lagoons and improvised drainage, Rio in its natural state is a theme park for Aedes aegypti, the main mosquito that carries the virus in Brazil. But as a result of Olympics-related construction and the razing of favelas, the city today features even more of the standing water in which the insect breeds. Moreover, the soccer competition—women's teams are composed entirely of players of child-bearing age—will extend to five other cities, including Manaus, which is known as "the jungle city." The Aedes aegypti is most active at dawn and dusk, the latter a popular time for people to be out and about. Says one U.S. women's soccer player, "It's definitely worrisome. But at the end of the day I think there are a lot of things that come up pre-Olympics that are concerns, and this is kind of a bigger concern than it was with smog in Beijing [site of the 2008 Summer Games] and potential terrorist attacks in London ['12]."

Until recently, worries about disease in Rio extended primarily to the rowers, sailors and open-water swimmers vulnerable to poor water quality (SI, Aug. 17, 2015). Now the circle of concern will encompass everyone. And it will include the fate of the host country itself. When Brazil won the right to stage the Games in 2009, the nation's citizens exulted in their validation as major global players. What a difference a few years makes. To treat an explosion of microcephalic infants and Guillain-Barré victims would be a challenge for any nation, but it will put extraordinary strain on a public health system already teetering as a result of a struggling economy.

But the impresarios of international sport aren't easily deterred. FIFA still seems inured to the reported deaths in Qatar of hundreds—and by kickoff of the 2022 World Cup, perhaps thousands—of migrant workers as a result of an entirely man-made crisis: the reckless and exploitative venue construction.

Here is solidarity, even if it's not the kind that the Lords of the Rings like to invoke: In the same way Zika could infect Michael Phelps as easily as any favela dweller, the virus now associated with Brazil is winding up at many distant doorsteps. Rio may be the Olympic host, but in a twisted take on the spirit of the Games, we are all prospective hosts now.

The circle of concern will encompass everyone. And it will include the fate of the host country itself.

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ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY ANDREW ZBIHLYJ PHOTORICARDO ARDUENGO/AP (BANHAM) PHOTODYLAN MARTINEZ/ACTION IMAGES/ZUMA PRESS (ÖZIL) PHOTOJESSE JOHNSON/USA TODAY SPORTS (WHITESIDE)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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