Brazil Asks Zika-Wary Athletes to Attend Rio Olympic Games

  • Minister wrote letters to Nadal, Murray, other top athletes
  • Besides Zika, Brazil sees increasing incidence of Chikungunya

Athletes who said the Zika virus would keep them away from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are receiving a personal letter from Brazil’s health minister asking them to reconsider.

Health Minister Ricardo Barros sent letters to 10 athletes including tennis stars Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, as well as golfers Jordan Spieth and Marc Leishman, saying that the risk of any of the 500,000 visitors expected in Rio contracting Zika is “basically zero.” He said he hasn’t gotten any responses.

“Taking care of the health of the Brazilian people and the tourists that come for the global sporting event is a priority for the federal government,” the letter says. “So come for the Olympic Games!”

Authorities are betting the cooler weather in the Southern Hemisphere’s winter will help control mosquito-borne diseases, and they are deploying 3,500 agents in Rio to hunt mosquitoes during the Olympic Games. Warnings that Zika can also be transmitted sexually will be included in the health ministry’s campaign to distribute 450,000 free condoms, Barros said.

While the U.S. Congress is discussing a bill allotting $1.1 billion to fight Zika after only one suspected case transmitted by mosquitoes locally, Brazil has budgeted just 500 million reais ($152 million) to fight the epidemic in 2016, with almost 166,000 cases already reported this year. Barros said his mandate is to provide “better quality care with the same resources” especially after the Olympics, when mosquito season will return with the warmer, wetter months of the end of the year.

Zika Virus: What You Need to Know in Two Minutes

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito found to transmit Zika also carries dengue and the painful, sometimes fatal Chikungunya, which is on the rise in Brazil. There have been almost 138,000 cases of Chikungunya in a population of 206 million Brazilians -- a 865 percent increase compared to the same period in 2015, according to Health Ministry data.

Barros, 56, who served four terms as a representative in the lower house of Congress, was the rapporteur of this year’s budget bill and said he fought for extra resources for Zika and mosquito eradication. A career politician without experience in medicine, Barros said Acting President Michel Temer chose him to lead the ministry that receives the most funds from the federal government because he was nominated by his Progressive Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

“The president picked me maybe looking at improving management and at the relationship with Congress,” Barros said.

Barros said preparing the country for the Olympics under the gaze of the international community has been one of his biggest challenge since becoming minister in May when Temer took over during the impeachment trial of Dilma Rousseff. He said Brazil is ready for any kind of health event that should arise, including terrorist attacks or accidents.

For a look at some of Rio’s security measures, click here.

Antidotes for chemical and biological attacks are stocked in Rio de Janeiro, health facilities will have 2,500 additional workers and federal hospitals will have at least 165 beds reserved specifically for visitors during the games, Barros said. He dismissed earlier reports of overcrowding at hospitals as a political fight between the local government and a physicians’ union demanding better wages.

“Brazil is prepared for the Olympics,” Barros said. “There’s no reason for people not to come to demonstrate their talent and fight for their medals.”

Federal police on Wednesday arrested 10 Brazilians suspected of planning terrorist attacks during the Olympic Games. The group contacted the Islamic State online, swore allegiance to the terrorist organization and began planning acts and carrying out training, Justice Minister Alexandre De Moraes said, adding that the alleged plotters appeared to be amateurs.