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A Reflection on Zika, Globalization and the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games

By Ricky Anjorin

Ricky Anjorin is a North Carolina native who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2016 where she is currently pursuing a Master of Public Health. She also works as a Medical Scribe in the University’s emergency department and hopes to become a physician one day. In her free time, she enjoys picnics, writing, and meeting new people. Ricky aspires to build a career at the intersection of medicine, research, and global development. 

The exacerbation of disease by globalization has been studied extensively. Globalization can be defined as “changing the nature of human interaction across a wide range of spheres including economic, political, social, technological and environmental…the process of change can be described as globalizing in the sense that boundaries of various kinds are becoming eroded. This erosion can be seen to be occurring along three dimensions: spatial, temporal and cognitive” (Lee, 2003). Globalization is the transcending of people, products, and thought beyond predetermined borders.

I am interested in considering the spatial aspect of globalization as it relates to human travel, using the 2016 Rio Olympic Games as a framework for understanding this subject. 10,500 athletes and over 500,000 foreign travelers attended the Olympic games this year (Kieran, 2016). These numbers are outstanding as they provide new economic opportunities promoted by the influx of tourism; however, they are not unproblematic. Zika, a single-stranded RNA virus that is transmitted to humans primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, had its first outbreak in Brazil in September 2015. The clinical presentation of Zika is relatively mild with only 20% of people becoming symptomatic with rash, fever, arthritis, and non-purulent conjunctivitis. Zika has also been linked to a pattern of recently recognized congenital anomalies that occur during pregnancy which include microcephaly, intracranial malformations, congenital contractures, and brain and eye defects.

Zika has been classified as an “urban epidemic” because the Aedes aegypti mosquito is an “urban”mosquito, meaning that it primarily targets humans with its peak feeding time occurring during the daytime, unlike many other species of mosquitos. Furthermore, the Aedes aegypti mosquito bite is the first known mosquito bite to cause malformations and the first mosquito virus to be spread sexually (Peterson, 2016). This mosquito often bites indoors, and is capable of feeding on multiple humans in a single blood meal, providing ample opportunity for mosquitoes to spread and pick up the virus. Aedes aegypti thrives in crowded cities, and for a disease where humans are the primary hosts, the international migration of people into these cities exacerbates the spread of the disease around the world (Peterson, 2016).

Since the 1950’s there has been a 50-fold increase in the number of people crossing international borders (Peterson, 2016). While the trend towards increasing movement of people as a result of globalization and urbanization is well documented, the implications of this remain somewhat ambiguous. Particularly for people traveling to areas with Zika, such as the great influx of individuals in Brazil for the Olympic Games, the CDC has made the following recommendations: condom use between partners, women should wait at least 8 weeks after travel before attempting conception and men should wait at least 6 months. They have also encouraged pregnant women to avoid traveling to areas with Zika (Peterson, 2016).

An important question that the CDC has grappled with is: how do we temper the migration of people for disease-related causes? Individuals in general, but particularly those who tend to move around the world, have an inherent sense of agency that drives their desires to experience new places. Individuals have priorities, like the many athletes who made the decision to participate in the Olympics Games in Rio (and the 17 athletes who decided not to attend due to concerns for Zika virus).

With no vaccine in sight for at least the next 2-3 years, questions regarding the control of the spread of Zika, and other infectious diseases exacerbated by globalization,  through restrictions on human travel will become increasingly imperative. While I am unsure of what such policy or intervention would look like, or if it is ethical to even pursue these, I think the more interesting question lies within our motivations and ourselves as we move through an increasingly globalized world in which boundaries continue to erode everyday. Does our sense of agency make us invincible or will it be our demise, and perhaps the demise of our unborn children?

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1. Kiernan, J. S. (2016, August 1). Rio 2016 Olympics By The Numbers. Retrieved October 17, 2016, from https://wallethub.com/blog/olympics-fun-facts/22356/

2. Lee, K. Globalization and health, an introduction. London, Plagrave Macmillan, 2003.

3. Peterson, L. Zika-The Science and Situation. University of Virginia Medical Center Hour, 2016.

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