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Health Risks at the Rio Olympics, by a Doctor Who Was There

Bert R. Mandelbaum, MD, DHL (Hon)


August 18, 2016

Were Zika Fears Overrated?

I came to Rio de Janeiro this year with the memories of many great Olympic Games I've attended. But I had a lot of other considerations in mind.

As part of the Medical Committee for the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), I oversaw the medical preparations for the soccer tournament, including drug tests. News reports leading up to the event had focused on the Zika virus, doping scandals, water pollution, and heat, sometimes threatening to obscure the Games themselves.

Having returned home to Santa Monica, California, I can now say that the Olympics are just what the doctor ordered. The Games have demonstrated once again how well people from around the world can put aside their differences and work together to celebrate human achievement.

Sports physicians don't typically have to concern themselves much about infectious diseases. This year fears about Zika were everywhere. Some researchers had theorized that the virus arrived in the Americas with spectators from French Polynesia during the 2014 World Cup, which Brazil also hosted. But a subsequent analysis suggests the virus arrived in Brazil the previous year.[1]

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) modeling suggests that the games were not likely to increase the spread of the virus.[2]

One factor working in favor of the games is that Brazil is in the Southern Hemisphere, so it's winter there now. The relatively cool, dry weather makes the mosquito population smaller this time of year. In addition, Brazil already receives many visitors from countries most vulnerable to the virus, so the arrival of the spectators and athletes didn't add much to the risk for dissemination.

The organizers in Brazil undertook a large-scale mosquito abatement protocol. And we on the medical team emphasized the use of mosquito repellants. Also, because the virus may be sexually transmitted, we encouraged the use of condoms not only during the Games but at least 8 weeks after a visit.[3]

As a result, so far, Zika has affected the Games only by discouraging some spectators, top-ranked golfers, and a handful of other athletes from attending. Most of those who didn't come probably regret making an uninformed decision.


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