In Brazil, the Zika Virus Torments Olympic Planners

Though cases of the mosquito-borne illness are on the rise, Brazil remains optimistic about the games because of new measures.

As the 2016 Summer Olympics approach in August, Zika cases are up in Brazil and ticket sales for the games are down.

Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo recently reported that so far in 2016, Brazil has investigated more than 91,000 probable cases of the Zika virus and a new rise in chikungunya and dengue, which also are spread by mosquito.  

The numbers were released April 26 by the Brazilian Ministry of Health, which has said it will provide 146 ambulances during the Aug. 5-21 games. The ministry also will provide a free smartphone app for tracking symptoms. The app, which will be available for Andriod and iOS, will let users input their symptoms, and if necessary, direct them to the nearest health-care provider via GPS. Information also will be provided in English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese and Russian for users to protect themselves against Zika.   

According to the American-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zika is spread primarily through mosquito bites and sexual contact. It is especially dangerous to pregnant women or women considering getting pregnant, because the disease can lead to serious birth defects, including microcephaly (small heads) and other brain defects. In healthy adults, though, the disease usually is not serious enough for hospitalization, and people rarely die from its flulike symptoms. There is no vaccine, but the CDC offers preventative steps people can take.

The CDC has issued a Zika Alert Level 2: Practice Enhanced Precautions for people traveling to Brazil and reports that the mosquitoes that spread Zika typically do not live above 6,500 feet in altitude. Rio de Janiero, where most of the games will be held, is below 6,500 feet, however.

Although August is prime mosquito weather in most of the United States, it will be winter in the southern hemisphere, and there will be fewer mosquitoes. Brazil's health minister, Marcelo Castro, has been quoted in several publications as saying that “the risk of infection will be considerably reduced” during the Olympics, but that the situation remains “very worrying.”

Earlier in the year, the conditions in Brazil were raising concerns among the U.S. Olympic Committee, which told athletes they did not have to attend if they were concerned for their health. 

"No one should go to Brazil if they don't feel comfortable going," Donald Anthony, the president and chairman of USA Fencing, said at the time. The committee will let athletes and staff members decide whether they participate in the games.  

CNN Money reported in early April that only about half the tickets to the games had been sold and that the Brazilian government was considering purchasing tickets to give to public schools. This stems from Zika concerns in addition to the country's worst recession in 25 years and political upheaval, including the late-March resignation of Brazil's sports minister.

A Forbes SportsMoney column calling it "irresponsible" to continue with Olympic plans despite the public health emergency is just one of many calls for officials to call off or postpone the games.

Eskild Petersen, the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Infectious Diseases, said, however, that controlling Zika is a problem of mosquito control, and once authorities get that under control, the risk will be reduced.

Rio de Janiero has been fumigating Olympic sites and host cities since January in an effort to kill mosquitoes.

Bazil seems to remain optimistic about the Olympics, though. Current sports minister Ricardo Leyser recently told British newspaper the Guardian: “I think the games are one of the few good things that will happen this year. It can reanimate the country and generate jobs. In this hard moment, the games help us to reactivate the economy and bring in tourists.”