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Zika and the Olympics: Disaster waiting to happen … or ‘manufactured crisis’?

Joy Daughtery Dickinson is an executive editor at AHC Media in Atlanta and long-time editor and writer of Same-Day Surgery. She has won nine national awards from the Specialized Information Publishers Association and the Association of Business Information & Media Companies for her blogging, news writing, and editing. She makes her home in southwest Georgia.

In 1996, while living in Atlanta, I saved up all of my vacation days so I could attend events for the Summer Olympic. While domestic terrorism was on my radar, most of us in Atlanta didn’t have to deal with anything worse than traffic jams.

That’s not true of those attending the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Athletes and their cheering sections are concerned about potential transmission of the Zika virus, according to an article by The Associated Press (AP).

International Olympians are being impacted by the virus, including one athlete who has decided to postpone pregnancy and another whose pregnant relative decided to cancel plans to attend, AP reports. The Zika virus is believed to be spread primarily by mosquitoes. It’s epidemic in Latin America, including Brazil, as well as the Caribbean. Brazil is investigating the link between Zika and microcephaly, which can be a sign of brain damage.

At press time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had listed the Summer Olympics as a Level 2 Alert, with enhanced precautions advised. It advised pregnant women to consider not going to the Olympics. If their partners are going, it advises them to use condoms or abstain from sex for the rest of their pregnancies. Women who are trying to become pregnant are advised to talk their provider and, along with their male partners, take steps to prevent mosquito bites at the Olympics. Men whose partners are pregnant and attend the Olympics should use condoms or abstain from sex (vaginal, anal, or oral) for the rest of the pregnancy, the CDC says.

As far as the CDC knows, there isn’t any evidence that the Zika virus can cause birth defects in future pregnancies. The virus is in the bloodstream for about a week.

Pregnancy isn’t the only concern of the Olympians. AP quoted one former medalist who expressed concern about the flu-like symptoms that arrive with Zika. Abby Johnston, who won silver for diving in 2012, pointed out that no one wants those symptoms when they’ve trained so long and so hard.

To address concerns, the U.S. Olympic Committee has hired two infectious disease specialists to offer advice on the Zika virus, AP reports. The International Olympic Committee is following the lead of the World Health Organization. One IOC member was quoted as saying that women who are pregnant or planning to be should take precautions, but Dick Pound said that other than those particular circumstances, it’s a “manufactured crisis.”

As an editor for a company that closely follows diseases such as Zika in Hospital Infection Control and Prevention and Contraceptive Technology Update, I’m not sure I agree with his take on the virus. I hope he’s right that the Olympics don’t turn into an infection control crisis. That’s one breaking news story we’d all like to avoid. (Editor’s note: Follow breaking news about Zika at and on Twitter @HICPrevention.)