How big a threat is the Zika virus to athletes and tourists heading to Rio?

Off The Ball speak to Professor Sam McConkey, head of the department of the international health and tropical medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons, about the virus


Image: John Mone / AP/Press Association Images

Much has been made of the risk that the Zika virus poses to athletes and spectators travelling to this summer's Olympic Games. The virus has been thrust under the spotlight once again after a number of high profile golf players opted out of event, citing concern for contracting the virus as one of their main concerns.

Speaking on tonight's Off The Ball, Professor Sam McConkey, head of the department of the international health and tropical medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons, explained that the virus is not just contained to Brazil and that in Rio, the spread of infection has slowed quite significantly.

"The rates of Zika in and around Rio de Janerio has really dropped off in recent weeks," he said, "That's something many of us expected because it's winter time there and of course the government have been trying to control mosquitoes as best they can."

Prof. McConkey pointed out that, despite the threat that Zika poses, there are a a number of other disease that dangerous to people travelling to Brazil.

"[The threat is] dramatically less now. Rio was getting a couple of thousand cases a week back in January, February and March, but now it's down to a couple of hundred cases a week. Rio is a state with a population of 16 million people, three or four times the population of Ireland. So a couple of hundred cases of Zika is relatively low. 

"The things that I would be worried about is travellers looking out for food borne illness. I would be counselling people to look out for things like gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines resulting in vomiting and diarrhoea), shigella (closely related to Salmonella) and the Norovirus (viral gastroenteritis).

"But most tourists and athletes are going to be staying in top quality, air conditioned, secure hotels. Mosquitoes don't like the cold so they won't come into the air conditioned environment."

Prof. Conkey pointed out the risks that tourist and athletes face include road accidents, assaults, food and water contamination.

He noted that the the Zika virus can also occasionally cause something called Guillain-Barré syndrome which can occur from other diseases and viruses that can be contracted over in Ireland and causes temporary paralysis which "in most cases can be reversed".

To read more about the virus, you can read our interview with world virology expert and former chief scientific advisor at the Centres for Disease Control, Dr. Mary Guinan by clicking here.