In 1947, an obscure virus was isolated in a rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest of Uganda. Today, after a recent outbreak in Brazil, that virus threatens the start of the 2016 Olympic games.
The Zika virus was first noted in humans in the 1950s as a result of transmission by mosquitoes. Due to the ease of worldwide travel, infectious diseases previously isolated to specific geographic regions can now spread worldwide.
Mosquitoes flourish in hot climates where there is standing water. This makes countries that do not have adequate sanitation in the form of sewers and drainage particularly vulnerable to diseases transmitted by mosquitoes.
Typical symptoms of Zika are fairly benign and consist of rash, fever and joint pain. The feature that makes Zika exceptionally dangerous is its tendency to attack the nervous system.
The human nervous system is divided into the central nervous system that is made up of the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system that consists of the nerves as they emerge from the spine and extend to the limbs and organs.
Women of childbearing age are specifically vulnerable since a fetus does not have adequate defenses to fight off this infection since it attacks the developing brain resulting in microcephaly with severe intellectual deficits. The virus can also attack the peripheral nerves in adults causing a paralyzing illness known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Considering the demographics of Olympic participants where approximately 44% are women, many of whom are of childbearing age, hesitation regarding the risk of participation is understandable.
The best preventive measures include the liberal use of DEET-containing insect repellant and avoiding excessive skin exposure. Clothing should also be sprayed with repellant.
Oddly, the biggest competition in this year’s Olympics may the one waged between man and mosquito.
Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org