Am I contributing to the Zika pandemic?

Since returning to Brazil last week, mosquitoes have bitten me at least a dozen times, and with each bite I wonder: Could this be the one with Zika, a fast-spreading virus that is strongly suspected of causing brain damage to unborn babies and has spurred some health experts to call for the cancellation of the 2016 Rio Olympics?

It wouldn’t be so bad for me personally to catch Zika, which has been officially labeled as a pandemic since late January. At worst, I’ll feel mild flu-like symptoms for a few days. More concerning is if I catch Zika, then return to the U.S. and get bitten by another mosquito, which then transmits Zika to other people and mosquitoes and pregnant moms.

That’s basically the argument for why the Olympics and Paralympic Games “must be postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession,” according to medical professor Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa. He wrote last week for the Harvard Public Health Review:

But for the Games, would anyone recommend sending an extra half a million visitors into Brazil right now? Of course not: mass migration into the heart of an outbreak is a public health no-brainer. And given the choice between accelerating a dangerous new disease or not—for it is impossible that Games will slow Zika down—the answer should be a no-brainer for the Olympic organizers too. Putting sentimentality aside, clearly the Rio 2016 Games must not proceed.

I disagree with that, but I do think extra precautions should be taken. A headline in VICE summed up the situation: “The Olympics Won’t Be Cancelled Over Zika, So Keep It in Your Pants and Use Bug Spray.” (Zika can also be passed sexually.)

With 26,000 suspected Zika cases in the state of Rio de Janeiro, this is the worst-hit of any state in Brazil. The Zika incidence rate here is the fourth worst nationally, at 157 per 100,000. For context, I’m about 833 times more likely of catching Zika than winning the lottery. (Not that I play the lottery, though I am gambling a bit with Zika.)

Brazil is anticipating up to 500,000 foreigners to visit for the Games, so we might expect 785 of them (5 x 157) to catch Zika and bring it home. Of course, the math isn’t quite so simple: Foreign tourists are more likely than the average person to stay in air-conditioned hotels and other buildings closed off to mosquitoes. Time is another factor: Someone in Rio for a few days will have less chance of contracting Zika than someone like me who is here for three months.

I’ve already reported a few stories on Zika: about Brazilians’ refusal to install simple window screens to block mosquitoes, about the Venezuelan government’s refusal to recognize the problem, about a Rio medical researcher’s search for a cure to the virus. Now I’m hoping that I don’t become part of the story.

Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment