Brazil’s Health Minister, Ricardo Barros, told the nation’s Senate that he believes there is “practically zero” chance of an outbreak of Zika virus during next month’s Summer Olympics.
Brazilian officials are increasingly referring to the Zika threat as it wanes, while international concern grows over Rio de Janeiro’s soaring crime rate, lack of funding for hospitals or police, and pollution that has already begun to sicken athletes.
Speaking to the Senate on Wednesday, Barros compared the rates of infection of dengue in 2014, when the nation hosted the FIFA World Cup, to Zika infections he estimated would occur during the Olympics. In 2014, Brazil hosted one million tourists and documented three cases of dengue, which is spread through the same species of mosquito as Zika, aedes aegypti.
“Historical data proves that, during the winter, the incidents of transmission of the virus are extremely low,” he said, noting that Brazil is currently experiencing the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. He cited both the low temperatures and “a tremendous effort” on the part of Rio de Janeiro authorities to drain stagnant water and prevent mosquito nests from growing for the drop in cases.
“Whoever wants to go to the Olympics can go because there is no risk of viral infection, or the risk is practically zero,” he concluded.
Bringing even more attention to the Zika virus outbreak in Latin America, of which Brazil is the epicenter, the government recently named Off! brand the official mosquito repellant of the Olympic Games, a corporate first.
The Zika virus outbreak has already caused a number of athletes, including golfers Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, to state they are not participating in the Olympics this year. On the other side of the spectrum, Jamaican runner Kemar Bailey-Cole has said he will compete in the Olympics despite already carrying the Zika virus.
The Zika virus does not cause symptoms in an estimated 80 percent of patients. In those who do suffer from the infection, patients experience muscle weakness and pain, fatigue, and conjunctivitis. The virus is a major threat, however, to pregnant women and those who may become pregnant, as it causes severe neurological damage in unborn children.
The fact that Zika is a much bigger threat to women has led some to accuse the officials responsible for the Olympics of sexism in downplaying the threat. “Zika is only really dangerous if you’re a woman of childbearing age. And that only affects about half of the Olympians and spectators. And that half is just women anyway,” writes Jane McManus at ESPN in a tongue-in-cheek article jokingly urging the world to dismiss the threat.
The resurgence of Zika as a topic of conversation among Brazilian and Olympic officials follows a refocusing of concerns regarding the Rio de Janeiro Games. The city is currently facing a major fiscal crisis that has halted police vehicles and left hospitals with a lack of basic medicines and tools. In an incident highlighting both crises, a gang of fifteen armed men stormed a hospital last month to free their leader, a drug trafficker known as “Fat Family,” killing a patient.
In addition to petty crime threats, authorities say evidence exists that Islamic State jihadists are planning a terrorist attack on the Olympics itself. Brazilian officials say that an Islamic State Portuguese-language channel has been found on the encrypted app Telegram, popular with the Islamic State.
Brazilian officials have designated a 22,000-strong military presence at the Olympics. Officials have also begun proceedings to create a special police and military tribunal to be used in the event of accusations of police brutality or excessive use of force, which they say will allow officers to work without fear of being brought to civilian court.