Rio Olympics 2016, or how not to deal with a deadly zika pandemic

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For the uninitiated, Plague Inc. is a funereally unsettling yet addictive disease simulator game where the player tries to wipe out humanity by creating and evolving plagues of bacteria, viruses or even fungi. Armed with an (un)healthy dose of realism, the game often uses a liberal dose of tongue-in-cheek humor with wacky scrolling news items and in-game events. If you manage to infect the UK early in the game, the 2012 London Olympics will actually give a boost your plague and increase infectivity and global transmission rates. As the 2016 Rio Olympics draws nearer at a time when Brazil is still trying to come to grips with the Zika pandemic, the fears of a Plague Inc style global pandemic are unfortunately all too real.

Ever since it was identified as the agent behind an unknown major infectious outbreak in Brazil last May, the mosquito borne virus has managed to infect most countries in Latin America and has even popped up north in the US. More worrying is the fact that within Brazil, densely populated coastal regions like Rio de Janeiro are the major hotbeds of the infection. Mosquitoes thrive in Brazil’s tropical climate, and eradication measures have met with limited success, especially in the poorer, densely populated regions.

The Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in monkeys in Uganda as a largely harmless disease with only a handful of human cases reported until 2007. The WHO findings suggest that the virus evolved from its harmless avatar into a major infection capable of large pandemic outbreaks and serious neurological disorders during its journey from Africa to Asia and then to South America, via the Pacific Islands.

Though not gruesomely fatal like Ebola, the Zika virus has been linked with horrifying neurological disorders such as Guillain Barre Syndrome and microcephaly, which affects the human fetus. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable. The infection is spread by the common Aedes mosquitoes  and can also be sexually transmitted by infected individuals.

In the context of the impending Rio Olympics, it is important to note that the spread of the virus to the country has been attributed to a 2014 international canoeing championship in Brazil where teams from the Pacific Islands participated. Health experts have already suggested that the Olympics be shifted out of Brazil over fears of a global pandemic. In the long term, it is probably impossible to stop the spread of Zika from Brazil to other countries. But holding the biggest international sporting event in the country at this juncture, bringing thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors seems like the recipe for a full blown global public health disaster in the making.

The US Olympics committee has already taken the issue very seriously, and has briefed their athletes and federation officials regarding the risks. Prominent sportspersons have already voiced their concerns, while several have pulled out of the event citing Zika fears as a reason. Other countries are going the extra mile to protect their athletes. For instance, South Korean Federation is providing athletes with special clothing imbued with insect repellants.

With less than 100 days left for the opening ceremony, it is highly unlikely that the Rio 2016 will be postponed or shifted to another venue. Here is to hoping that the real life virus doesn’t emulate the achievements of its virtual cousins in Plague Inc!