RIO DE JANEIRO/PARIS – Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic venues will be inspected daily during the games in a bid to prevent the spread of a mosquito-borne virus linked to a rare birth defect and also a condition that can cause paralysis, local organizers said Sunday.
Brazil is suffering from an outbreak of Zika virus, which health officials here say may be behind a spike in cases of microcephaly, which sees infants born with unusually small heads, as well as the paralysis-causing Guillain-Barre syndrome. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised pregnant women to reconsider travel to Brazil and 21 other countries with Zika outbreaks.
The Rio 2016 local organizing committee stressed that because the Aug. 5-21 Games are during the Southern Hemisphere winter, Brazil’s dry season, the mosquito population will be smaller.
In any case, teams will scour Rio’s Olympic and Paralympic sites daily, looking for stagnant waters that are the breeding grounds for the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits Zika, as well as dengue and chikungunya.
“Rio 2016 will continue to monitor the issue closely and follow guidance from the Brazilian Ministry of Health,” the committee said in a statement.
The Zika outbreak is the latest problem to hit South America’s first Olympics, coming as Brazil battles its deepest recession in generations, as well as a gargantuan corruption probe that has ensnared top politicians and some of the country’s most prominent businessmen.
Rio organizers are cutting about $500 million in expenses, several million tickets remain unsold, and venues for sailing, canoeing and rowing are rife with high virus levels linked to Rio’s outdated sewage treatment system.
The Zika virus originated in Africa and has spread through parts of Asia. It was first detected in Brazil late last year. Researchers suspect it may have been brought to the South American nation by a tourist during the 2014 World Cup or during an international canoeing event in Rio the same year.
The disease spread swiftly, hitting hardest the poor and underdeveloped region in the country’s northeast.
Health officials sounded the alarm in October, after noticing a spike in cases of microcephaly in tandem with the Zika outbreak. Since October, Brazil has recorded 3,893 suspected cases of the birth defect — which can lead to stillbirths, as well as long-lasting developmental and health problems among survivors. In all of 2014, South America’s most-populous nation recorded fewer than 150 cases of microcephaly.
Brazil’s Health Ministry doesn’t track the cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare and potentially life-threatening nerve condition that can leave victims paralyzed and on life-support, but doctors in the northeast have reported a six-fold jump in the number of cases during last year’s rainy season.
Health experts blame the chaotic growth of urban centers and the proliferation of plastic, which provide fertile mosquito breeding grounds, for the spread of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries Zika.
They say that a vaccine appears to be the best way of stopping Zika. Although the government has said it is pouring funds into developing a vaccine, officials caution that it will take at least three years.
The dramatic growth in incidents across Latin America, notably in Brazil, has prompted governments to warn pregnant women about traveling to the region — a sensitive topic as Rio prepares to become the first South American city to host the Summer Games, starting Aug. 5.
Brazil and several other countries have even advised women to delay getting pregnant.
“The mayor’s office will be intensifying inspections for the Olympics in August, despite this being a period with lower numbers of mosquitoes,” City Hall said in a statement Sunday.
“About a month before the opening of the Games a team will visit all competition sites to eliminate possible concentrations,” the mayor’s office said.
The Rio mayor’s office said its campaign against the mosquitoes would be helped by the fact that the Games will take place during the winter, but there would still be an increase in preventative efforts.
The city health department fields 3,000 agents daily all year around and “during the Games there’ll be a dedicated team focused on the Olympic installations,” the mayor’s office said.
Officials say a key measure is getting rid of stagnant water, an easy breeding ground for mosquitoes.
However, about 80 percent of mosquito breeding takes place in and around housing, “which shows that the fight … is a duty for all,” the mayor’s office said.
The first test for the city amid the Zika scare is the annual carnival, which is just getting underway and will see huge crowds, including many tourists, gathering in the streets.
At one street party Saturday, carnival-goers danced to a song that caught the mood of fear — and defiance — in the Olympic city.
“If the water stops, the larvae come, the larvae give birth to the mosquito,” one verse went. “Chase away Zika!”
The world’s latest health scare is a seemingly minor illness that carries a killer wrapped inside: Zika, the mosquito-borne virus sweeping Latin America, usually lasts less than a week, except when it derails a whole life.
Zika, which resembles a light case of the flu, is often so mild that people don’t realize they have it.
But health officials in Latin America say the tropical fever is linked to neurological problems and a surge in microcephaly. The defect can cause brain damage and death.
The outbreak has led authorities in some countries to urge couples not to get pregnant, while the CDC has warned pregnant women to avoid traveling to 22 affected countries.
Here are some questions and answers on the virus.
The virus was first identified in a monkey in Africa in 1947. Its name comes from a forest in Uganda where the first infected rhesus monkeys were found. Within several years the virus had jumped to humans in Uganda and Tanzania, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Like dengue fever and chikungunya, two similar diseases, Zika is transmitted by mosquito species found in tropical and subtropical regions: Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, or tiger mosquitoes.
In 70 to 80 percent of cases, the disease goes unnoticed. The symptoms resemble a mild case of the flu — headache, muscle and joint pain, and mild fever — plus a rash.
Symptoms usually last two to seven days.
The disease is suspected of causing two serious complications: neurological problems and birth defects in babies born to infected women. But while there appears to be a connection with Zika, researchers have not definitively confirmed a causal link.
The main neurological complication is Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing weakness and sometimes paralysis.
Most patients recover, but the syndrome is sometimes deadly. Cases linked to Zika have been reported in Brazil and French Polynesia.
Microcephaly and other brain deformities in newborns have also been reported, particularly in Brazil. Microcephaly cases in the giant South American country surged from 163 per year on average to 3,893 after the Zika outbreak began last year. Forty-nine of those babies have died.
There is no vaccine for Zika, and no specific treatment — patients simply take pain-killers and other medication to combat the symptoms.
The virus is transmitted through mosquito bites, so prevention entails fighting mosquitoes and avoiding contact with them. Health officials recommend covering up, using insect repellent and keeping windows closed or screened.
Authorities have responded to the outbreak by fumigating and cleaning up the standing water where mosquitoes breed.
Authorities in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica have advised couples to avoid pregnancy for the time being.
In Brazil, authorities have announced a crackdown on mosquito breeding grounds ahead of the Olympics, which will bring hundreds of thousands of travelers from around the world to Rio de Janeiro in August.
The virus was first reported in Africa, Asia and the Pacific before leaping to the Americas last year.
It is now spreading locally in some 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries, as far north as Mexico. Brazil has been the hardest hit.
Travelers have also brought it back to Florida, Hawaii and New York. A woman in Hawaii gave birth to a baby with microcephaly after traveling to Brazil.
So far there have been no locally transmitted U.S. cases reported, though the Aedes aegypti mosquito’s habitat stretches into the United States.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) says on its website that “there is no evidence of transmission (of) Zika virus in Europe to date and imported cases are rare.”