Cell With Zika Virus

The Real Concern Is for Pregnant Women as the Virus Can Be Passed to the Unborn Child

While the 2016 Summer Olympic Games are coming to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil this August, the country is grappling with more than just the infrastructure to support its athletes. The Zika virus has received international attention, leading people to wonder how the Zika virus will affect the Olympics.

There's no clear answer. Some countries are concerned about exposing their competitors to risk, but it's important to understand the virus itself and the real health risks it poses.

Understanding Zika

The virus is a mosquito-borne illness, spread by bites from the Aedes species. The infection isn't transmitted easily between people the way a common cold or the flu is, though. Experts are still uncovering insight to this end, although the virus can be sexually transmitted or passed on through blood transfusion.

For most people, the Zika virus causes a mild infection. Many wouldn't even know they're infected, as only about 20 percent carry its symptoms. These symptoms include an itchy rash, fever, mild joint pain and headache. It's very similar to a common cold or seasonal virus.

Brazil had its first confirmed cases of the virus in May 2015. Since then, it has spread throughout South and Central America, with a few travel-related cases occurring in the U.S.

Risks for the Olympics

When it comes to the Olympics, Zika will likely not need to be a limiting factor for most athletes and attendees.

"There are worse diseases than Zika that wouldn't stop people from attending or participating in the Olympics," says Karin Nielsen, MD, professor of clinical pediatrics for the division of pediatric infectious diseases in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The real concern with Zika is for pregnant women; the virus can be passed from mother to the unborn child. The virus also raises the risk of microcephaly, a serious birth defect in which babies are born with a small head as a result of an undeveloped brain. Ultimately, Dr. Nielsen's research involving pregnant women with the Zika virus has found a strong link between the virus and central nervous system alterations in the fetus.

What to Expect and Those Expecting

Brazil has stepped up its efforts to control mosquitoes. At the start of the Olympics on Aug. 5, the country will be in its winter season. The mosquitoes are less active during colder months, which will naturally lower the risk of spreading the virus.

For those who attend, Dr. Nielsen recommends using long-acting insect repellents to protect against mosquito bites. The exception remains pregnant women and women who plan to become pregnant.

"I would not recommend that pregnant women go to areas where Zika is active," Dr. Nielsen states. "Anyone who travels to an active area should also use condoms when returning home for a time to prevent spreading the disease and to avoid getting pregnant while they may have the virus."

The infection may also be transmitted through breastmilk, so nursing mothers should also be careful of their risk.

Dr. Nielsen and associated researchers continue to study the virus to gain more insight. As far as how the Zika virus will affect the Olympics, its influence depends on how much risk each individual feels. For the majority of people, the virus need not stop them from participating or viewing.