Zika virus overshadows buildup to Rio de Janeiro Olympics
RIO DE JANEIRO — 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.”
“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.
“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.”
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 last 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 if 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.”
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