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Already Facing Environmental Threats, Rio Now Grapples with Zika Virus

16 Jan, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Once-Rare Infection is Thought to Have Been Brought to Brazil During 2014 World Cup, and Can Pose Serious Threat if Contracted During Pregnancy

Brazil, already troubled by polluted waters in Rio and by dengue fever, just got one more health threat. And this might be the most dire of all. The Zika virus, a new mosquito-borne disease, has been identified in individuals who live in, or who have visited, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

Then there's this sad irony: the disease, once rare and confined only to small areas of Asia and Africa, is thought to have been brought to Brazil in 2014 during the World Cup. From there, it exploded across South America. Now the Brazilian Ministry of Health estimates that up to 1.5 million people may be infected.

According to an article in Yahoo! News, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued an alert for people traveling to areas where the virus is now rapidly spreading.

The most common symptoms of Zika, a flavivirus related to Dengue, Yellow Fever, and West Nile, according to Richard Kuhn, Head of Biological Sciences at Purdue University, include flu-like symptoms (fever, body aches, headache), as well as rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis.

But it’s becoming clear that infection poses a far more serious health threat to pregnant women. Kuhn has told Yahoo Travel that “Once a pregnant woman is infected, the placenta can also become infected, causing an infection in the brain of the fetus.”

It now appears that this infection can cause microcephaly, a potentially deadly abnormal underdevelopment of the brain. A Reuters news report also indicated a baby born in Hawaii recently was diagnosed with brain damage caused by the Zika virus. The mother became ill with the virus while living in Brazil in May 2015 and the baby was likely infected in utero, Hawaiian state health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

"There's no indication at this point that there's any Zika virus circulating in Hawaii," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told Reuters. In addition, officials noted that people with the Zika virus are not contagious; the disease can be spread only through the bite of an infected mosquito.

According to an article in Travel Weekly, four in five people who acquire Zika may have no symptoms. Those who do have symptoms will notice they last from several days to a week, with hospitalization being uncommon. Zika was reported for the first time in Brazil in May 2015. Brazilian health authorities say more than 3,500 microcephaly cases were reported in Brazil between October 2015 and January 2016. Some of the affected infants have had a severe type of microcephaly and some died.

At the moment, there is no vaccine against or cure for Zika, says Kuhn, but the National Institutes of Health is focusing on the virus for research and development. In the meantime, authorities are working to eliminate breeding sites for mosquitoes in countries affected -- and the CDC is warning pregnant women to steer clear of the areas where the virus has been identified.

And for Rio, where preparations for the Olympics are in the final stages, it’s one more blow. Inside The Games has reported the state has declared a health sector state of emergency after governor Luiz Fernando Pezão signed a measure to provide additional support to hospitals across the state. The measure signed by Pezão and Alberto Beltrame, secretary of healthcare, came after the state ran out of funds to maintain the operation of its public health system, with several hospitals and outpatient facilities being forced to close. The state of emergency is set to last until June, just two months ahead of the start of the Olympic Games. Athletes are also receiving advance instructions on avoiding the virus.

More bad timing: the virus will be at its height when college students head to spring break in destinations like Mexico, and when cruise season is in full swing, traveling to multiple ports in areas where the virus has been identified.

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