Zika Virus Scare Spreads as Brazil Gears Up for Carnival, Olympics

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Zika virus is transmitted through mosquitoes, and has been spreading across South America and the Caribbean. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

By Paulo Prada

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 18 – Olympic and tourism officials in Brazil downplayed risks for foreign visitors from the mosquito-borne Zika virus on Monday, even as the health ministry warned pregnant women to consult doctors before visiting the country amid a widening scare.

Alarm over the virus, linked to a rising number of mental birth defects among children of mothers infected by it, comes two weeks before nationwide Carnival celebrations, a highlight of Brazil’s tourism calendar.

It also comes 200 days before Rio de Janeiro hosts the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics, the first in South America.

Following a warning by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week that pregnant women should not travel to 14 countries and territories in the Caribbean and Latin America where the virus has spread, Brazil’s health ministry said pregnant women should seek medical advice before visiting.

Municipal authorities in São Paulo, the country’s biggest city, said they had distributed faster testing materials to help public hospitals identify patients infected with dengue, another mosquito-borne virus whose outbreaks have worsened in recent years.

Despite the growing alarm, local officials in the run-up to the Olympics and Carnival say current measures to prevent the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses should be enough to ensure that tourists and locals minimize the chance of infection.

Cities across Brazil are working to educate residents about the dangers of pooled and stagnant water, where mosquitoes reproduce, and in some cases have targeted breeding areas with insecticides. Efforts are particularly intense in the northeast, where most infections and Zika-related birth defects are concentrated.

In Rio, more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to the south of the worst-affected regions, Olympic and tourism officials say they are heeding government warnings but see no signs of trip cancellations or of disruption to the Games, which begin Aug. 5.

“The Olympic and Paralympic venues will be inspected on a daily basis,” said Philip Wilkinson, a spokesman for Rio 2016, adding that organizers are following guidance from local and federal health officials. He noted that the August weather, near the end of the local winter, will be less propitious for mosquitoes than if the games were held in the summer.

Expected to attract as many as 500,000 foreign visitors to Rio, the Olympics are small compared with the tourism generated annually in the city and across the country by Carnival.

Even in the state of Pernambuco, the epicenter of the Zika outbreak and a historic hub of Carnival revelry, officials said tourism has not been hit.

“There are at least as many reservations as last year and in the case of some hotels even more,” said Alexandre Albuquerque, a spokesman for the state tourism secretary. He said Carnival, which this year starts the first week of February, attracted 1.5 million tourists last year.

Still, authorities across Brazil are reminding visitors to take precautions, such as using insect repellent and long sleeves to avoid mosquito bites.

Brazil’s health ministry in November confirmed the Zika virus was linked to a fetal deformation known as microcephaly, in which infants are born with smaller-than-usual brains.

Since October, at least 3,500 suspected cases of microcephaly have been reported by the health ministry, over 30 times more than had been reported each year since 2010.

The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also known to carry the dengue, yellow fever and Chikungunya viruses.

Health experts are unsure why the virus has spread so rapidly in Brazil, but warn that big tourism events may provide the virus with opportunities to multiply and spread to other parts of the world.

Last week, U.S. health authorities confirmed the birth of a baby with microcephaly in Hawaii. The mother, they said, had been infected with the Zika virus while visiting Brazil last year.

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