The Zika virus is overshadowing the final preparations for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, even eclipsing concerns over deep budget cuts and severe water pollution.
Hundreds of reporters packed Olympic headquarters on Tuesday to hear about ticket sales, venue construction and a reminder that Friday marks six months until the opening of the games on Aug. 5.
Instead, they got the organizers’ medical director, Dr. Joao Grangeiro, and government health officials offering assurances that the games will be safe from Zika and that only pregnant women are at risk from the mosquito-borne virus with its epicenter in Brazil.
“Athletes should come to the Olympic Games,” said Grangeiro, who said organizers are following guidelines of the World Health Organization, which calls the spread of the virus an “extraordinary event and public health threat.”
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“They (athletes) are not at risk,” Grangeiro added, promising the mosquito count will fall in August during Brazil’s winter.
“We will have Summer Games, but for us it’s winter time,” he said. “We will not have an epidemic or pandemic situation. We can’t say we won’t have any cases (during the games) but we see this as a minimal risk.”
Daniel Soranz, Rio’s city health secretary, told reporters the mosquitoes around the Olympic Park, the heart of the games, were not primarily the Aedes aegypt type that transmit Zika.
“We have routine daily actions in the area in order to diminish the number of mosquitoes,” he said.
Jaques Wagner, the chief of staff for Brazil president Dilma Rousseff, said Monday there was no risk to athletes unless “they are pregnant women.” He said pregnant women were “not recommended” to travel to Brazil.
The Zika virus is another problem for Rio organizers, who have been forced to cut about $500 million to keep the $2 billion operating budget in balance with Brazil going through its deepest recession since the 1930s.
The local currency has lost about 30 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year, inflation is above 10 percent and Rousseff is fighting impeachment.
Rio organizing committee spokesman Mario Andrada was asked how organizers can fund programs to kill mosquitoes as they slash other expenditures.
“In this case the most important thing to do is obviously to care for those who have been infected and to prevent new infections, and not to worry if we have budget or not,” Andrada said.
“We have the funds that we need to do the work that we have to do,” Andrada added, without specifying the cost.
He was also asked whether tourists were getting worried about traveling to Brazil.
“No. I don’t have even one request to return tickets,” he replied.
Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s executive director of the Olympic Games, said sports federations were briefed about Zika on Tuesday at the IOC offices in Lausanne, Switzerland.
He said the Olympics had dealt with the SARS virus before the 2008 Beijing Games, and Ebola during the 2014 Summer Youth Games in Nanjing, China.
“It is not unusual, not comfortable obviously, but at the same time there’s a very good response from the Brazilian authorities,” he said, “especially with the huge mobilization of armed forces.”
The latest on the Zika virus
▪ The Brazilian Health Ministry says Brazil’s health minister and the U.S. secretary of Bealth and human Services have discussed ways the two countries can work together to create a vaccine against the virus and to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the virus.
▪ The Brazilian city of Cappivari is cancelling its Carnival celebrations and will use the money set aside for the annual festivities to fight the mosquito that carries the Zika virus and other diseases.
▪ Health officials say a patient in Dallas County, Texas, has acquired the Zika virus through sex. Dallas County Health and Human Services said it received confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the patient was infected after having sexual contact with an ill person who returned from a country where Zika was present.
▪ Nicaragua is confirming its first two cases of the Zika virus in pregnant women, and Chile is reporting its first case of a person infected with the virus.
▪ Swiss International Air Lines says female flight attendants and pilots won’t be required to fly to Sao Paulo, Brazil, if they don’t want to because of the Zika virus outbreak. The Swiss carrier said in a statement that it’s advising any pilot or member of a cabin crew who is “in the phase of family planning” to speak with their gynecologist before flying to Brazil.
▪ UNICEF is asking for $9 million for its programs in the Americas to curb the spread of the virus and lessen its impact on babies and their families across the region.