The 2016 Olympics could help spread the Zika virus unless health officials take quick action to protect the one million tourists and athletes who will converge on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this summer, scientists warn.
The pandemic spread of the mosquito-bourne virus, which is also believed to be transmitted through sexual activity, is centered in Brazil. The next Olympic games will be hosted in Rio next August. Another 500,000 visitors are expected in Rio for Carnival celebrations in February.
"The potential role of scheduled international mass gatherings in 2016 could exacerbate the spread of Zika virus beyond the Americas," researchers wrote in a column published in the British medical journal Lancet.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women to not travel to Brazil "given a possible association between Zika virus infection with microcephaly and other neurological disorders."
The timing of the Olympic for August -- when it is winter in Brazil -- is fortunate since "mosquito density is expected to be low in Brazil" because of the lower temperatures, the researchers said. February to May is the most dangerous time there.
A factor that could be more of a problem is that the "Olympics attracts mostly young healthy adults from middle and upper-middle income groups who live in developed countries," the researchers wrote. "Such visitors are less likely to have been exposed to arbovirus infections and less familiar with mosquito bite prevention."
Olympic visitors should also aware that they could also get the Zika virus "from commercial sex workers with asymptomatic infection," the publication said.
"Brazilian authorities in collaboration with the Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games have already outlined vector control measures in the Olympics vicinity," the researchers wrote.
The prevention plan should include "the use of insect repellents, protective clothing, including long-sleeved shirts and trousers, insecticide-treated mosquito nets, and air conditioning in residences.," they said. Promotion of safe sex and the supply of condoms would also help. The researchers suggest that Olympic coached should "remind athletes about the need for compliance with public health advisories." Olympic visitors should also bring their own insect repellents "given that Brazil is facing a shortage of supply."
There are no "rapid test kits" to help detect which travelers might have been exposed and it is tough to spot symptoms of most Zika virus infections, they wrote. "It is premature to consider mandatory entry or exit screening and restrictions. Although there are conflicting reports on the value of exit and entry temperature screening,15 it can help the detection of a few individuals with symptoms and might persuade some people with febrile illness to avoid travel and can help reinforce health advisories.
The Zika virus threat has led to some calls for the games to be postponed until the pandemic is controlled, however, the researchers suggest that is not necessary. "With proactive planning and preparedness, the effect of Zika virus infection on mass gatherings participants and their home and host countries can be minimized."