No One Got Zika At the Olympics and Brazil Is Relieved

Rio’s mayor says visitors were safer from Zika in his city than Miami.

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Aug 27 2016, 2:00pm

Opening ceremonies. Image: Wikipedia

On the eve of the Olympic Games, the mood in Rio de Janeiro had been tense. Mosquito repellent advertisements covered luggage conveyer belts as thousands of athletes descended on Rio, while tourists wandered the city in clouds of DEET. Signs with instructions on how to prevent Zika emerged around Brazil stating, "a mosquito is not more powerful than a whole country".

But this week the World Health Organization announced that no one associated with the 2016 Olympics in Rio contracted the Zika virus so far. The news somewhat vindicates the Center for Disease Control and other medical experts, like British journal The Lancet, who predicted that the Olympics would not aggravate the epidemic.

Here in Brazil, the lack of cases was met with both relief and pride. Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, criticized what he called an "irresponsible panic" about the virus in the months before the games.

The Zika virus, which can cause brain damage in fetuses and paralysis in adults, grew into an epidemic in 2015, spreading to 54 countries. Brazil, the outbreak's epicenter, saw the highest number of cases, a worrying statistic as athletes representing nearly every country in the world prepared to gather in Rio.

In May, 240 scientists and medical experts, concerned that the Olympics might accelerate the spread of Zika to Africa and other regions, had sent a letter to the WHO urging the Games to be postponed or moved.

"An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic," the letter read.

A sign at the airport in Rio read: Give your blood to sports, not mosquitos. Image: Marina Lopes

The Center for Disease Control responded to the outcry with a risk assessment of its own. It found that over 70 percent of the 206 countries that participated in the Olympics do not house the Aedes Aegypti mosquito that carries the virus, or the conditions necessary to sustain an outbreak. The Annals of Internal Medicine estimated between three and 37 visitors would return home infected. Zika fears deterred about a dozen athletes, who pulled out of the Olympics.

But as the weather hovered near 50 degrees several nights during the Games, Rio's mosquito population dwindled. The virus's biggest presence was seen in the soccer arena, where Brazilian fans taunted their competitors with shouts of "Zika" when they had possession of the ball.

As Zika fears abated in Brazil, returning US athletes encountered rising concerns back home. Last week,federal health officials warned pregnant women to steer clear of Miami Beach, an active area in Florida's Zika outbreak. Congress has yet to provide emergency funding to fight the epidemic.

While the lack of cases during the games is promising, new patients could still emerge. Zika lives in victims' blood for up to 14 days, but can survive in sperm and is sexually transmittable for months after a bite, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, the CDC urges anyone who has traveled to Zika infected areas to monitor their symptoms and spray repellent for three weeks after their return.

"Everyone thought they would arrive in Rio, be attacked by Zika-carrying mosquitos and we would all get very sick." Paes, Rio's mayor, told reporters at a press conference. "Let me remind you, that those looking to avoid Zika were safer in Rio than in Miami."