Wed | Jan 16, 2019

The pandemic wings of the Zika virus

Published:Thursday | February 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM
The Aedes aegypti mosquito, vector of the Zika virus.


August 5-21, 2016 will be the staging of the XXXI summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This is arguably the largest global sporting event, with over 200 nations being represented in one or several sporting disciplines.

While individual nations are eager to see their athlete(s) compete, the world is anticipating the outcome of the vicious rivalry between track and field superhero, Jamaica's Usain Bolt, and his proverbial nemesis, the USA's Justin Gatlin.

In the wake of this anticipated global event is the threat of an impending pandemic of the Zika virus disease. This disease has "spread so explosively" in the Americas, it is now declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) a "public health emergency of international concern".

The Americas is now in panic mode as the Zika virus continues to spread rapidly, infiltrating 28 countries and territories in the Americas, with Brazil being the largest explosion site. At least 18 states in Brazil are infected. Health authorities there have reported over 1.5 million cases with associated neurologic disorders, such as microcephaly in newborns. Some health officials are blaming the Zika virus for causing Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing weakness and sometimes paralysis. That syndrome directly affects Zika patients themselves. Most recover, but the syndrome is sometimes deadly.


With just six months shy of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and an expected 10,500 athletes, and at least 2.1 million volunteers and spectators combined expected to be in attendance, the global Achilles heel is exposed. It is only a matter of time before the pandemic wings of the Zika virus take flight. Each potential attendee to the 2016 summer games will be a possible host to this seemingly catastrophic virus if bitten by an infected agent of transmission (Aedes aegypti mosquito).

While Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff's chief of staff, Jacques Wagner, tries to downplay fears for Olympic athletes and fans who are not expectant mothers, the WHO said the emergency is warranted because of how fast the mosquito-borne virus is spreading and its suspected link to an alarming spike in babies born with abnormally small heads - a condition called microcephaly - in Brazil and French Polynesia. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said the WHO's declaration raises more awareness and provides "more resources to fight the virus".

It is interesting to note that the health concern focus of the Zika virus resonates with pregnant women, while there remains a threat to Zika patients themselves. But it behoves health authorities globally to be cognisant of the fact that information on the full effects of the virus is speculative, treatment and vaccination are non-existent and it continues to spread rapidly. Disease transcends geographic boundaries, therefore, great care must be taken to halt the explosiveness of this viral spread and prevent a possible pandemic that looms at the heels of the greatest sporting event on the planet.

Andrea Christie