Infectious Diseases

Updated 01 August 2016

Zika's not the only health risk to consider at the Olympics

While Zika is the word on everyone's lips, there are other bugs and health problems that Olympic athletes and spectators should keep in mind.

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Traveling to the Olympics? Don't let illness spoil your fun.

Other mishaps

Roughly half a million people from around the world are expected to travel to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And while Zika is in the spotlight, there are other bugs and health problems that Olympic athletes and spectators should keep in mind.

What's the biggest threat? Health experts say the most likely cause of death or serious harm to travellers everywhere is injuries from car accident, falls, crime or other mishaps.

Read: 5 things to know about the Zika mosquito

But that's not what's on the minds of people headed to the Olympics, said Dr Nicholas Van Sickels, associate director of Tulane University's travel medicine clinic in New Orleans.

"Zika is what brings them in the door," Van Sickels said of recent clinic visitors.

A look at those health problems, and what athletes and travellers can do about them.

How big a threat is Zika? 

The risk of getting sick from Zika is low, especially compared to other illnesses that a visitor to Rio might suffer. It's winter in Brazil, a time when mosquitoes that spread the virus are not numerous. But for mothers-to-be, the stakes are very high because an infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects. That's why pregnant women have been told to stay away.

But how can I avoid Zika? 

The virus is mainly spread by tropical mosquitoes, though it also can be transmitted through sex. Travellers can protect themselves from mosquito bites by, among other things, wearing long sleeves and long pants and using insect repellents. Also, stay in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens, the CDC suggests.

Read: Low Zika impact expected at Rio Olympics

Will I know if I'm infected?

You might not. Most infected people do not get sick, and those that do usually experience only mild symptoms, like fever, rash, red eyes, joint pain, that end within a week. But some infected adults have developed a paralysing condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

What about other tropical illnesses?

The same mosquito spreads other tropical illnesses, including chikungunya, which has been spreading in Brazil and other parts of South America in the last few years. It has some of the same symptoms as Zika, but the joint pain is often debilitating and can give people a stooped appearance — the name chikungunya comes from a word meaning "to become contorted". Like Zika, there is no vaccine or cure for it. There are vaccines or medicines for other mosquito-borne diseases seen in Brazil, including yellow fever, dengue fever and malaria. Those aren't considered much of a threat for Olympic visitors, though.

What else could make me sick?

If a traveller to the Olympics gets sick, it's most likely from drinking water or eating undercooked or unclean food, said Dr Martin Cetron of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Food should be peeled, boiled or cooked. Avoid food from street vendors, and fruits and vegetables that have not been thoroughly washed, experts suggest. Drink bottled water or beverages. And maybe pack some medicine for diarrhoea, Cetron said. Some swimming areas in Rio are contaminated with sewage, and the CDC advises avoiding swallowing mouthfuls of water and staying away from beaches with warning signs.

Anything else?

It's flu season in the southern hemisphere, so expect that people in Rio may be sneezing or coughing and spreading flu germs. Flu and other respiratory illnesses are probably the second most common thing travellers to the Olympics will get, Cetron said. Wash your hands and drink lots of uncontaminated fluids, experts say.

What if I get sick in Brazil?

Eu me sinto doente. That's Portuguese for "I feel sick". Talk to a doctor or nurse if you feel very ill, especially if you have a fever, the CDC advised. The CDC website has information about finding medical care while abroad and also offers some health terms in Portuguese. Officials do not expect a lot of Olympic travellers to take Zika home with them. Researchers at Yale University recently estimated that there may be no more than 40 travellers going home from the Olympics with infections.

Read more:

Zika virus: pregnant women shouldn't travel to Brazil

Surge of Brazilian babies born with small heads

Zika may also cause stillbirth

AP