The Zika virus is being linked with increased rates of a birth defect called microcephaly. (Photo: iStock)
When Rio de Janeiro put in its bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games, Brazil was the darling of the global economy, a high-octane nation fueled by booming commodity exports and a rising middle class.
Today, things are vastly different: Not only is Brazil in a serious recession and its political climate highly unsteady, the country is now in the throes of contending with the Zika virus — and the threat of its spread has cast a major pall on the upcoming August games.
Will Brazil be able to “Zika-proof” in time for the Olympics?
With the World Health Organization (WHO) now predicting more than 4 million Zika cases throughout the Americas, it’s impossible to expect eradication of the disease in Brazil, says Jason Rasgon, associate professor of entomology and disease epidemiology at Penn State University.
The Olympics will take place in August, which is a cool, dry month in Rio. But even if mosquitoes tend to flourish in the wet and warm part of the year, the Aedes Aegypti mosquito (which carries the Zika virus) is not going to disappear completely, Rasgon says. Climate cannot be relied upon as the first line of defense, he says, and the mosquito is a hard pest to eliminate because it breeds in domestic spaces where water is either stored or where it collects — buckets, plastic containers, plant pots, the inside of tires, to name a few.
In a nation like Brazil, where the income gaps are staggering and many, some don’t have access to a 24-hour water supply, giving them no choice but to store it — making precise, thorough, and targeted eradication even tougher to implement.
“I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to contain Zika and there’ll definitely be people going to Brazil for the games who will get the disease,” Rasgon says.
It takes just one bite from a mosquito carrying Zika to contract the virus. Some research has also shown that it might be possible for Zika to spread in ways other than through a mosquito bite, including via sexual intercourse.
Related: Is the Zika Virus Contagious?
Nevertheless, that an epidemic should coincide with a major sporting event is not new for Brazil: In June 2014, the country played host to the FIFA World Cup under the threat of a dengue fever epidemic (dengue and Zika are transmitted by the same kind of mosquito), which had reached new and alarming levels in the Sao Paolo area — where dengue hadn’t been prevalent for many years — a few months before the tournament.
At that time, Rachel Lowe, post-doctoral scientist at the Institut Català de Ciències de Clima in Barcelona, worked closely with the Brazilian ministry of health to develop an epidemic-risk, early-warning modeling framework to forecast the risk — from high to low — of dengue fever in each of the 12 Brazilian World Cup cities. The model was based on past monthly data from 2000 to 2013 in conjunction with climate data, and designed to make probabilistic dengue predictions for the 553 micro regions of Brazil during the tournament.
“We took climate indicators and actual dengue cases happening in the three- to four-month period before the games to get an idea of the risk during the tournament, bearing in mind that June, again, is [a] cooler month in Brazil, so you would expect less dengue in that time than in the period January to May,” Lowe tells Yahoo Health.
The model helped Brazilian authorities to then put in place an on-the-ground, targeted plan to minimize and contain the spread of dengue in areas where it was most likely to manifest itself. The approach involved a grassroots, hands-on campaign of public education and awareness, Lowe explains, involving the following measures to eradicate the mosquitoes:
Drain the water in which they could breed in and around the stadiums where matches were to be played.
Going from house to house to drain stagnant water.
Teaching area residents about not storing water in and around their homes.
Warning both locals and tourists about the importance of wearing mosquito repellent and protective clothing.
According to Brazil’s health ministry, there were a total of 586,182 recorded cases of dengue in 2014, down from 1,448.292 in 2013. Around 1 million tourists attended the FIFA games, and only the city Fortaleza reported a small outbreak of 0.4 cases per 1,000 inhabitants, according to a study published in medical journal The Lancet. The cities of Natal, Recife, and Salvador, with fewer than 0.08 cases per 1,000 inhabitants, had a very low risk of infection,
Climate-based modeling did play a role in the World Cup, and the seven-month lead time to the Olympics does give the Brazilians a good window in which to do the same thing for Zika, Lowe says.
“One can use the statistics and the models from dengue to infer what might happen with Zika, although there are differences between the diseases,” she says.
The Brazilian government has also begun putting into effect other preventative measures, including raising education and awareness about Zika, tackling stagnant water, fumigating mosquito breeding areas, and urging citizens with symptoms of Zika to report them to health officials. During the games, the authorities will inspect stadiums and other venues on a daily basis, fumigating and controlling stagnant water in and around the area.
But while early intervention and climate-based, statistical modeling are an important part of the process, Zika is a new virus for which there is relatively little data at present, Lowe warns.
There is only one strain of Zika — dengue has four — which makes things a little easier, she says, but aside from causing microcephaly and the very rare Guillain-Barre syndrome, Zika is often “asymptomatic,” or so minor in its manifestations that many people could just ignore them.
Related: Zika Virus Symptoms: What Are They?
There is no cure for or vaccine against Zika. Ultimately, the most effective method of control is personal protection from mosquito bites, including the wearing of light, protective clothing and mosquito repellent.
Rio is expecting 10,500 athletes from 206 countries to participate in the games and Brazilian Tourism Institute EMBRATUR forecasts that more than half a million tourists from across the globe will be attending the events.
Brazil had budgeted around $3 billion in investments for the games — a large chunk of which went to upgrading infrastructure — but the final amount may well top out at a whopping $13 billion, says Brian Jacobsen, Chief Portfolio Strategist at Wells Fargo Asset Management. That’s a huge sum for a country already battling serious inflation.
To make room for the games, thousands of Brazilians have been displaced from their homes, Jacobsen says, and traffic in Rio — already intense — has become worse. Infrastructure improvements have not turned out as expected and there has been an ongoing concern about the water quality for some of the events.
Ideally, a nation should make ongoing investments into the area of public health, but Brazil, according to the World Bank, only spends about 4.7 percent of its GDP on public health. That will make the cost of the Zika crisis — including measures to contain it and investments to develop a vaccine — even more onerous for the economy, Jacobsen says.