With the 2016 Rio de Janeiro summer Olympics around the corner, there is increased need for a coordinated response for prevention and spread of Zika virus. As of January 28, 2016, Zika virus has been reported in 28 countries in the Americas. There is a heightened state of global alert to screen for travelers with fever returning from Zika virus infected countries. A group of scientists and health experts published a paper on behalf of the International Society for Infectious Diseases on the implications for public health preparedness at the 2016 summer Olympics.
On February 1st, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the Zika virus outbreak is a “public health emergency of international concern”. Zika virus is related to other mosquito-borne viruses including Dengue, Yellow Fever and West Nile viruses. The main mode of transmission between humans is through the bite of a female mosquito, but it has also been suggested to be transmitted via sexual intercourse, blood transfusions and transfer from mother to foetus in utero. The rapid increase in number of babies born with microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby is born with a much smaller head, and other neurological conditions, is what sparked the WHO to declare Zika virus a public health emergency. Researchers are still uncertain how Zika virus has spread so fast in Brazil and the link between Zika virus and microcephaly and neurological disorders requires more research.
Those who become infected with Zika virus may experience fever, malaise and skin rashes 3-12 days after the mosquito bite. However, of those infected, 80% are asymptomatic. Currently there is no treatment or vaccine available. Since the outbreak there have been significant efforts put into the development of new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.
The authors have cautioned that explosive spread of Zika virus in Brazil poses significant challenges for public health preparedness and surveillance for the Olympics. Thus far, the WHO has recommended countries stay on high alert and be prepared to respond to an increase in reported cases. In order for individuals to reduce the risk of acquiring Zika virus, the WHO is recommending individuals wear clothing that covers exposed skin, use insect repellent and any travelers who are pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant should avoid travel to countries with Zika virus outbreaks.
Following the WHO’s decision declaring Zika virus a public health emergency, a group of 188 health experts from 35 different countries wrote a letter to the WHO calling for the summer games to be postponed or moved to another location. They warn that after half a million people visit Brazil for the Olympics and then return to their home countries, this could lead to a global endemic. The WHO responded saying that there is no public health justification for cancelling or postponing the Olympics and doing so would not significantly alter the spread of Zika virus.
The authors of the paper do state that research is currently underway to find better diagnostic tools and find treatment for the virus. Amidst the recent Ebola outbreak, they caution that there is a need for a global effort to increase resources to be proactive in the surveillance of the virus and to conduct priority research in emergency situations.