Rio's Olympic Health Concerns Not Limited to Zika

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As ominous as the Zika virus has become, and it's potential impact on pregnant women and their babies, it's just one of several health concerns facing travelers who are planning to attend the Summer Games in Brazil. Polluted waterways and an increase in crime will also be part of Rio's Olympic experience.

Rio Olympics 2016 / Shutterstock Rio Olympics 2016 / Shutterstock

Once confined to a few small Pacific islands and African nations, the Zika virus has become a major health concern. According to the World Health Organization, which earlier this month declared it a global public health emergency, Zika has now been traced to more than 30 countries, many in South America.

And while Brazil and its population basically represent Zika's Ground Zero "1.5 million people are believed to have contracted the virus in Brazil" as many as a half million visitors planning to attend the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro must now also contend with this health threat.

And as ominous as Zika has become, and it's potential impact on pregnant women and their babies, it's just one of several concerns facing attendees of the Games.

Anbritt Stengele, president of Sports Traveler, a Chicago-based company that arranges travel packages to sporting events, says that most of the vacation groups traveling to the Olympics include families with children. Compared to the male-dominated audience for the 2014 World Cup, "this is a completely different demographic," Stengele told the New York Times. "The Olympics is about families."

Zika can cause birth defects in the babies of infected mothers. The one of greatest concern is microcephaly marked by infants with undersized heads, which can cause incomplete brain development, reduced brain function and reduced life expectancy which has stoked fear among young Brazilian families.

As for Americans, as many as 200,000 travelers are expected to attend the Games. (What's more, it's estimated that roughly 60 percent of the U.S. population live in areas where Zika could ultimately be transmitted by mosquitoes traveling north in the warmer months ahead.)

In response, Olympic officials have promised to inspect venues on a daily basis in order to ensure that any puddles of stagnant water where the mosquitoes breed are removed, therefore minimizing the risk of athletes and visitors coming into contact with mosquitoes.

However, it's important to note that the Games, taking place in the Southern Hemisphere's winter, will be held in Brazil's colder weather season when its mosquito population decreases.

This wouldn t be the first outbreak in Olympic history. Past instances include an influenza outbreak at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, as well as a measles outbreak at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But neither spread very far or posed as great a health risk as Zika.

Unfortunately for these Olympics, health concerns don't end with Zika. Water safety also poses a serious health concern for the athletes and visitors alike. Reports have shown that raw human sewage floating in Rio s water can produce sickness.

According to a WHO report, Available evidence suggests that the most frequent adverse health outcome associated with exposure to faecally contaminated recreational water is enteric [intestinal] illness, such as self-limiting gastroenteritis, often of short duration.

When Rio first made its case to host the 2016 Olympics, the city promised to cut the amount of raw sewage flowing into its waterways, which would be used for sailing, rowing, canoeing and swimming events, by 80 percent. But it has since confirmed that it will not meet that goal. Health experts say that the combined risks posed by Rio's water include many gastrointestinal diseases, as well as hepatitis A.

And if that's not enough, crime is posing concerns for visitors as well.

According to a U.S. State Department report assessing Rio's Crime and Safety, these concerns include regular incidents of robbery, assault, burglary and theft of both foreigners and Brazilians alike. Due to a consolidation of power among local crime gangs, civilian violence has increased as gang-on-gang violence has decreased. As a result, public transportation areas, hotel areas and tourist areas have the highest crime rates.

The 2016 Rio Olympics begin Friday August 5 and run until Sunday August 21.