- 02 Aug 16
Golfers have been abandoning the Olympics in their droves, here, we get up close and personal with the bug-ugly villain of the 2016 Olympics.
Bulging eyes, sickly long legs, memberless wings and a sting carrying the latest epidemic: straight out of a David Cronenburg horror film, the Aedes mosquito sits poised, ready to reap destruction on the upcoming Olympics.
At least, that’s what the media would have us believe. Since its resurgence in 2015, theories about the Zika virus have multiplied like a, er, virus. And yet, you’d be hard pressed to find a man in the street who could tell you what the virus does or where it came from.
While Zika has long been a reality for people in Africa and South America it hadn’t penetrated the western consciousness until recent months, when the Rio Olympics began to slide into view. According to experts Colleen Acosta from The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Professor Jimmy Whitworth of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the virus first appeared in Africa in 1947, before spreading to Asia and French Polynesia. In other words, this is a virus that has lived through the Moon Landing, the Cold War, Elvis and Live Aid - so how the devil are we only hearing about it now?
RUNNING FOR COVER
The answer is that, like any disease worth its salt, it has evolved. “It is only in the past 10 years that we’ve seen outbreaks,” says Whitworth. “The current outbreak is huge, affecting 50 countries, mainly in South America and the Caribbean, with the WHO estimating that 4 million people will be affected in 2016.”
Spread via mosquito bites, and sexual intercourse, the scary part is that experts have linked the virus to the diseases microcephaly (babies born with abnormally small heads) and Guillain Barre syndrome (a neurological disorder). There is no vaccination to prevent Zika or medicine to treat the infection. The only protection is to avoid travelling to areas with an active infestation. Which is a fly in the ointment if you are planning to attend the 2016 Olympics: Brazil is currently the centre of Zika activity. But is there really anything to worry about?
”The infection itself is quite mild,” says Professor Whitworth. “And most people don’t even notice that they have been infected. Only about 20% get any symptoms (itchy rash, mild fever) but these rarely last more than a week.”
So why are Olympians dropping out like flies? Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the world of Golf, a sport which takes its place at the Games for the first time since 1904. That the likes of Jason Day, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen and Vijay Singh as well as Irishmen Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell have all dropped out is a blow to organisers.
”My health and my family’s health comes before anything else” Rory McIlroy said. “Though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take.” Katie Taylor’s response to those comments was scornful. “Another one bites the dust. I wonder what excuse the golfers would have made if there was no virus.” For Irish athletes such as boxer Darren O’Neill “representing your country at the Games is the greatest honour you could possibly achieve.”
Golfers are not alone in running for cover. Tennis players have also withdrawn. The truth is, it’s all about priorities. The Olympics ranks lowly on the bucket-lists of golfers and tennis players alike: for them, representing your country at the Games is small beer. Golfers have the four Majors every year. And the Ryder Cup. The same goes for tennis: most of the big stars don’t really care.
Which is the real bottom line here. Because, according to Colleen and Dr. Whitworth, the chances of travellers contracting the Zika virus are low.
”Authorities are taking measures to reduce mosquito numbers near venues for added protection,” Professor Whitworth says, “and they do not expect more than a handful of infections among the half million visitors who will be attending the Games. Athletes are unlikely to be pregnant, and as long as they delay conceiving a child for over six months after their return there is no reason for them not to compete. Similarly for spectators, using insect repellent, wearing appropriate clothes, practicing safe sex and avoiding pregnancy immediately after returning will give excellent protection against zika and its consequences.”
The WHO are working on a contingency plan, that according to Acosta, will provide “public health advice to the Government of Brazil, the International Olympic Committee and the Rio 2016 Local Organizing Committee, to further mitigate the risk of athletes and visitors contracting Zika during the Games.”
On top of all that, the Olympics will be taking place during winter in Brazil - and while, it can’t compare to an Irish winter, mosquito numbers plummet at that time of the year, hopefully hindering the belligerent bug from snacking on visitors. With the Olympics just weeks away, all there is left to do is wait and see if the mosquito’s bite is as bad as its bark.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 09 Nov 21