The pomp and circumstance of the Olympic Games have brought the nations of the world to Brazil. Among the many concerns that have hung over the games, including logistics, politics and security, the ongoing Zika outbreak in the host nation has continued to make headlines. Despite assurances from the World Health Organization (WHO) that the risk of an outbreak occurring at the Olympics was low, some athletes chose to stay home.
With the competition underway in Rio de Janeiro, the media's attention has turned more toward medal counts and discolored swimming pools than mosquito-borne illnesses, and perhaps that is how it always should have been. The effects of the Zika virus are a low-grade risk, not only for the Summer Olympics but also in general, even as cases of local transmission have been confirmed in the southern United States. Control efforts in North America will keep the outbreak localized, and while scientists are still learning how the disease works and what its potential side effects are, its impact on the general population has been minimal. Though the outbreak will continue to grab headlines, the disease is waning in parts of South America, and even with funding in the United States in question, control measures have been moving forward there. Consequently, the danger Zika poses to global economic or political activities continues to be slight.
Both the WHO and researchers at Yale University have said the risk of the Zika virus spreading because of the Olympics is low. One reason is that it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, a historically slow period for the transmission of mosquito-borne diseases in Brazil. Perhaps more important, incidences of the disease are down substantially in the country, which has been the epicenter of the outbreak.
Brazil is not the only country in the region to see a decline in Zika cases in recent months. In fact, Colombia declared its own Zika outbreak over in July. But new occurrences of the disease are still increasing in the Northern Hemisphere, where summer is mosquito season.
The Risk in the United States
Florida's proximity to the Caribbean and its tropical climate meant that the state was probably going to be among the first in the United States to see cases of Zika transmission. It therefore came as little surprise when the first suspected locally transmitted cases of Zika were reported in late July. The current count of locally transmitted suspected cases in Florida stands at 25; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) listed six cases as laboratory confirmed as of Aug. 10. The majority of them are from a single Miami neighborhood.
Travel advisories for the area have been issued for pregnant women, and control measures, including airborne spraying of insecticides, are underway. An additional measure, the release of genetically modified mosquitoes, was recently passed at the federal level. Local approval is still needed, however, and the region that was given the federal go-ahead is not currently experiencing a Zika outbreak. In other trials, including one aimed at controlling a dengue outbreak in Brazil, the modified mosquito has been successful in reducing populations of the insect. A test in Florida could come as soon as December.
The Rio Olympics may have heightened the public's awareness of the disease, but they will not substantially increase the risk of it spreading globally.
The question of who will pay for both mosquito mitigation and additional preventive measures as well as further research into the virus in the United States remains the main complicating factor. The U.S. Congress adjourned without approving additional money for those purposes. Nearly $375 million was redirected toward combating Zika in April, but states such as Florida that will have the most need are pleading for more money. Earlier this month, Florida representatives asked the CDC for a bigger slice of the $16 million that the organization recently distributed nationwide. (Florida received $720,000 from the CDC in its latest allotment.)
One place where the uncertainties surrounding federal funding may be felt more acutely is in vaccine development, where recent momentum could be lost if the money runs out prematurely. The National Institutes of Health have announced that a small-scale Zika vaccine trial will begin shortly. Preliminary results of the recently developed vaccine's efficacy on the 80 volunteers in the trial could be known by the end of the year. But a recent shift in research funding steering more than $80 million toward the development of a Zika vaccine may continue to push research along in the meantime.
As research into the disease continues, society will gain more tools with which to combat future outbreaks. Beyond the race toward a vaccine, recent research has also shown how Zika targets pregnancies at a molecular level. This discovery, published Aug. 11, will be vital in helping to prevent Zika-induced congenital disorders.
Presently, Zika poses a high risk to a small portion of the population (pregnant women and fetuses) but a low risk to the general population. The Rio Olympics may have heightened the public's awareness of the disease, but they will not substantially increase the risk of it spreading globally. In fact, media attention and the accompanying hysteria over the issue — warranted or not — has prompted greater research and understanding of the disease that might not have otherwise occurred.