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As Zika Virus Moves In, Travelers Back Off

10 Feb, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Travel Industry Responds to Cancellations, Requests for Alternate Destinations, as Experts Look at Large Sporting Events as a Possible Ground Zero

As reports of the Zika virus continue to rise, and with it, alarm from the medical community, travelers (including those on sports business) are rethinking their plans.

Reuters reported that a survey by travel risk manager On Call International found that about 64 percent of American respondents would cancel their travel to Zika virus-affected countries.  Meetings & Conventions, in a survey of its members who are event planners, found that 30 percent of those polled currently have meetings scheduled for Zika-affected areas. Of those, 29 percent are considering moving or canceling those events.

Although in most people, the mosquito-borne virus causes only mild flu-like symptoms (if it causes any symptoms at all), it is a serious threat to pregnant women, causing babies to be born with small heads and underdeveloped brains -- a condition called microcephaly. (Officials are also investigating if the virus is associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause muscle weakness and paralysis.)

The World Health Organization declared a global emergency last week, citing the explosive spread of the virus. Travelers going from the U.S. to affected areas are being warned; pregnant women being advised against traveling into affected areas. One of those is the Olympic Games, according to a Travel Weekly article that quotes Jacques Wagner, President Dilma Rousseff's chief of staff.

“The risk, which I would say is serious, is for pregnant women. It is clearly not advisable for you [to travel to the Games] because you don't want to take that risk,” said Wagner.

Rio, already plagued by polluted waters, dengue fever, crocodile-infested areas and social unrest, is now waging an all-out battle against mosquitoes, according to Inside The Games, which noted  that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has vowed to wage a “house-by-house fight” against the virus ahead of the Olympics and the IOC's Medical and Scientific Commission, chaired by World Archery's President U?ur Erdener, seem confident in the work that is being done.

Urdener, a 65-year-old IOC member from Turkey and a qualified doctor, added that various measures would be taken around Games venues.

"A plan has already been put in place for the Games venues in the lead up to and at Games time, which will see them inspected on a daily basis in order to ensure that any puddles of stagnant water - where the mosquitos breed - are removed, therefore minimizing the risk of athletes and visitors coming into contact with mosquitos," he said.

"Rio 2016 will also continue to follow the virus prevention and control measures provided by the authorities, and will provide the relevant guidance to Games athletes and visitors. It is also important to note that the Rio 2016 Games will take place during the winter months of August and September, when the drier, cooler climate significantly reduces the presence of mosquitos and therefore the risk of infection."

The National Institutes of Health claims to have two potential Zika vaccines in development, one of which is based on an experimental West Nile vaccine that could be repurposed.

The Australian Olympic Committee has named Bushman the official insect repellent supplier for Australian athletes at Rio 2016.

The travel industry has been reeling since the news broke several weeks ago. Travel Weekly notes that travel agents are scrambling to redirect couples who were booked for ‘babymoon’ vacations (so named because the trip takes place during the woman’s pregnancy) in the 20 or so countries in the Caribbean and in South and Central America.

Airlines are making it easier for travelers to make Zika-related changes: United, American, Delta and JetBlue are offering rebookings or refunds to customers scheduled to travel to areas where the virus is being transmitted.

Since the first local case of Zika was detected in Brazil last May, health officials estimate between 440,000 and 1.3 million people there have caught it. Several cases were detected in Mexico in November, and the first case in Puerto Rico was reported two weeks ago. The Dallas/Fort Worth CBS affiliate has also reported a case in Texas, in a patient who had recently traveled to South America. In Hawaii, a baby with birth defects was born to a woman who had been in a Zika-affected area during her pregnancy.

The transmission mode of the virus has also become a moving target. Initially, it was thought the virus was strictly mosquito-borne, and that it could not be spread person-to-person. However, medical officials later noted that an infected person could be bitten by another mosquito, which can then transmit the disease in its next bite. Now, according to the Washington Post, Zika can also be spread through sexual contact with an infected person.

Prior to 2015, when its uptick was first noticed, transmissions of the virus had not been found in people in South America and instead appeared mainly in Africa, Asia and Polynesia, according to ABC News.

While it’s not entirely clear when the viral outbreak started or if there was “patient zero” who spread the virus, researchers who published the June 2015 study speculated that the virus may have come to Brazil during major sporting events that brought together tens to hundreds of thousands of international travelers in close proximity.

“One plausible hypothesis is the arrival of the new emergent virus during the soccer World Cup in 2014,” said the authors of the June 2015 study that studied the genetic sequence of the Zika virus in the Brazilian outbreak.

Another researcher in a paper for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal pointed to the Va’a World Sprint Championship, a canoe race where four participating teams were from French Polynesia, as a possible place where the infection started.

Armbruster said the evidence is strong that it may have been an infected traveler from French Polynesia because the samples are from an Asian strain of the virus. However, he clarified that researchers cannot be certain it was related to the big sporting events.

“It is very likely an infected traveler from French Polynesia that traveled to Brazil was likely the source of the Brazilian invasion,” he said. “Whether it is someone associated with the [World Cup,] we do not know for sure.”

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