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Rio 2016: Is the Zika virus a public health risk or an Olympic-size overreaction?

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The threat of the Zika virus isn’t stopping most international athletes who qualified from competing in this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Aside from the withdrawal of a few golfers — and the concerns of a handful of scientists — it seems few athletes or officials are concerned by the prospect of contracting the now infamous Zika virus while attending the Games less than a month away.

“I’m really not that worried,” said Jacqueline Simoneau, half of Canada’s synchronized swimming duet. “We’ve been preparing for this for years and we’ll take every precaution.”

Read More: UBC’s record-breaking Olympic contingent ready to take on Rio Games

The 19-year-old from Chambly, Que., will compete in her first Olympics this summer. Already a veteran of the international swimming scene, Simoneau believes the decision on whether to attend the Games should be left to the individual athletes, but admits there’s almost nothing that could prevent her from competing in Rio.

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“It’s been my lifelong dream,” Simoneau said. “We were in Rio in March and we didn’t have any issues — and that was during their summer.”

Despite being the “Summer” Olympics, Rio will be the first Summer Olympics ever held during the winter — a time when in Brazil mosquito activity is reduced and the transmission rates for viruses such as Zika decline substantially, according to Fiona Hunter, Canada’s premier mosquito expert and a professor of biology at Brock University’s Biting Fly Lab.

It’s difficult to assess the full risk of contracting the Zika virus in Brazil without first obtaining independent data, explains Hunter, adding there’s been a steady decline in the number of reported cases of Zika in Brazil over the past 12 months.

“It certainly looks as though the incidence of new cases of microcephaly is dwindling,” said Hunter. “The weeks that the Olympics will be held — Aug. 5 to 21 — have traditionally been weeks with reduced arbovirus transmission in Brazil.”

Watch: How the Canadian Olympic Committee is responding to the Zika virus

How the Canadian Olympic Committee is responding to the Zika virus
How the Canadian Olympic Committee is responding to the Zika virus

Cooler temperatures and reduced rainfall during the Games will result in less than ideal conditions for mosquitoes and an overall reduction of the rate at which the virus spreads, Hunter said.

The Canadian Olympic Committee, responsible for ensuring the safety of Canada’s athletes while in Rio, sees the risks associated with contracting the virus as minimal.

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“The Zika virus is mosquito-borne and has been around for a long time,” said Dr. Robert McCormack, the COC’s chief medical officer. “Most infected people will develop no symptoms and relatively mild ones.”

Although the COC recommends pregnant women not travel to the Games, McCormack believes simple precautions like wearing proper clothing and using adequate amounts of bug spray while in Rio will be more than sufficient to protect athletes, their families and supporters.

Read More: Russian rowing team banned from Rio Olympics for doping

Travel to other Zika-affected areas

Although the thought of cancelling the Olympics due to Zika has gained much attention, there is a significant flow of travellers moving between other Zika-affected areas and countries like Canada and the United States.

In a statement released last month, Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, described the threat posed by Zika as an “urgent situation,” but noted that Zika is present in many areas — not just Brazil.

“It’s already all over the world,” said Frieden. “The number of people going to the Olympics account for less than 0.25 per cent of all travel to Zika-affected areas. So even if the Olympics didn’t exist, 99.75 per cent plus of that risk would continue.”

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