• Sunday, June 23, 2024
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Rio 2016 Olympics and the threat of Zika virus


Counting down to the summer 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, which kicks off from August 5th– 21st in Brazil, there have been growing concerns about the attendance from athletes and visitors that will be travelling for the event.

Countries are considering their attendance since the Zika virus news broke a year ago, while many athletes have started pulling out from the party and more on the verge of staying out of the games.

Many health experts are calling for the postponement of the event or moving the Games to a new date, to avoid the risk of spreading the virus to countries without adequate healthcare infrastructure.

A public health specialist in Canada has added to the country’s woes with a high-profile call for the competition slated to start in early August to be postponed or moved due to the Zika outbreak.

“But for the Games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now?” Canadian professor Amir Attaran said.

The state of Rio de Janeiro has recorded 26,000 suspected Zika cases– the highest of any state in Brazil and has an incident rate of 157 per 100,000, the fourth highest in the country, he said. “What is proposed is to bring half a million Olympic visitors into the heart of the epidemic.”

The deluge of athletes and visitors expected to pour into Rio from countries around the world could facilitate the virus’s transmission in countries that to date has been unaffected, he said.

First seen in Brazil last year, the Zika virus has now been detected in more than 60 countries. Brazil remains the country most-affected by the mosquito-borne virus, which has been proven to cause a severe birth defect that results in babies born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.

The virus has also been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that can result in paralysis and death.

Top golfer Rory McIlroy recently joined the growing list of athletes that withdrew of Rio 2016 over Zika fears.

McIlroy joins the likes of Justin Day, Adam Scott, Vijay Singh and Marc Leishman on the list of high-profile golfing names to pull out of the event.

South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen are also big names to have withdrawn.

“Even though the risk of infection from the disease is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless, and a risk I am unwilling to take,” said four-time major winner McIlroy.

“I trust the Irish people will understand my decision. The unwavering support I receive every time I compete in a golf tournament at home or abroad means the world to me.

“I will continue to endeavour to make my fans and fans of golf proud with my play on the course and my actions off it.”

Back home in Nigeria, the Federal Government has not released a report that the country will not be in Brazil for this year’s summer Olympics.

Tony Ubani, the Public Relations Officer, Nigeria Olympic Committee, NOC, says Nigerian athletes will participate for the Rio Games despite the treat over the deadly Zika virus.

Ubani said, “On the issue of Zika virus, there is no statement or negative reaction from the Federal Government or the Minister of Sports that Nigeria will not be taking part in the Olympics.”

“As it stands, Nigeria will be participating at the Rio Games this summer; the Nigeria Olympic Committee have not in any way received any directive from the Federal Government that the nation is withdrawing from the event,” NOC PRO said.

Reigning Commonwealth 100m champion Kemar Bailey-Cole few days ago, claims he has been diagnosed with the Zika virus. The 24-year-old Jamaican says he only learned of his condition after his girlfriend found a bump on his neck.

“I didn’t know I had the virus and I have been training with it for three days now.”

Also, NBA stars Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and LaMarcus Aldridge have all announced they will sit out at the event, while Antony Davis, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are other confirmed absentees.

American cyclist Tejay van Garderen, whose wife is pregnant, has also pulled out, while tennis players John Isner, Dominc Thiem, Feliciano Lopez, Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios will not be traveling to Brazil.

But Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, says withdrawing from the games because of the virus is an “extreme” decision to make.

“The chances of being infected by Zika virus are low, especially if you protect yourself from mosquito bites by covering up and using a good insect repellent.”

“Most people infected don’t even show any symptoms and serious illness, although reported, seems to be a very rare event.”

The risk is that the virus may land on the doorstep of countries that do not have adequate healthcare infrastructure to tackle the virus and Nigeria is not prepared for another epidemic. The memory of the Ebola virus still lives in the heart of Nigerians.

The emerging risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome makes it clear that Zika virus presents a threat to everyone.

The Rio Olympics are likely to make it worse. Anyone planning to visit Rio for the Games should take all the precautions they can, but the best plan might be simply to stay home.

In the midst of these arguments, the good news is that the World Health Organisation, (WHO) has not issued any travel restrictions on  countries.

The organisation said it has been working with the Brazilian government to mitigate the risk posed by Zika to athletes and visitors, and is encouraging visitors to take precautions to protect themselves from mosquito bites and practice safer sex.

The timing of the Games may also prove helpful, as the Games will take place during Brazil’s wintertime when there are fewer active mosquitoes and the risk of being bitten is lower.


Anthony Nlebem