Will Summer Olympics Impact Fla. Zika Cases? While Some Worry, Others Not As Fazed

Jul 1, 2016

With the 2016 Summer Olympics right around the corner, some state officials are worried that will cause an increase in travel-related cases in Florida. And, with Congress still not acting on any Zika funding bills, it’s causing even more worry as officials continue to monitor the impact the mosquito-borne disease has during these Summer months.

It was a windy, yet Sunny day in Oregon for the NCAA Women’s Discus throwing competition in June. But, that still didn’t deter Kellion Knibb from not only receiving a silver medal at Nationals, but doing her personal best and setting a new Florida State University record. The FSU Junior is an athlete who specializes in discus throwing.

“The discus is a disc,” said Knibb. “As the name suggests, it’s a flat disc, made of metal and fiber glass usually. My implement is 1 kilogram, which is two pounds roughly, approximately. And, you spin in a circle and you toss it as far as you can.”

Her second place National win means she’s on track to competing in the Olympics. The 22-year-old won’t be competing for the United States. Instead, she’s hoping she can compete for her hometown of Jamaica. She just needs to be in the top three in the Qualifying trials to become an Olympian.

Already, a number of people have qualified for this year’s Olympics. But, some have dropped out over concerns with the Zika virus. Still, that hasn’t deterred Knibb from her dream.

Kellion Knibb, 22, is hopeful she'll be in the Olympics. If so, she'll be competing for her hometown of Jamaica.
Credit Sascha Cordner / WFSU-FM

“When you’re from a third world country, you’re used to mosquitoes. Living in Jamaica, I’ve gone through several of those [mosquito-borne diseases], like chikungunya, things like that,” added Knibb. “And, I’m still here. So, the fear is there, but I think I’m also used to being exposed to things like that, and I expect that for such a big meet like the Olympics, I expect that the rightful committee will take the rightful actions to make sure we’re as protected as we can be. So, I won’t let that fear cripple me from doing what I’ve been dreaming of doing for so long.”

And, she’d be right.  Including regular contact with the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Olympic officials say they do have a plan in place. It includes providing insect repellent, long-sleeved clothes, and condoms for up to six months for Olympic athletes and staff.

The disease can cause severe birth defects. And, the Zika virus can be transmitted borth by mosquitoes and sexual contact. Several athletes—all men so far—have dropped out, citing concerns over family planning.

Because, Brazil is considered the epicenter of the Zika outbreak with more than 100,000 suspected cases. And, Rio—where the Olympics will be held—accounts for most of Brazil’s cases.

“Well, if I was a woman who was thinking about becoming pregnant, I certainly wouldn’t want to head to Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic for that matter for a nice Summer vacation, or go to the Olympics for that matter,” said Thomas Unnasch. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be that concerned.”

Unnasch is a University of South Florida professor who studies mosquito-borne diseases and also chairs USF’s Department of Global Health.

He agrees Zika is an issue for Floridians to worry about. But, for those traveling to the Olympics? Not so much. He says the aedes aegypti mosquito—which is also native to Florida—may not frequent the same places Olympic visitors will be.

“If you’re going to the Olympics, you’re not going to be living under those conditions, right,” he asked. “You’re going to be paying $800 a night to stay in a high-rise air-conditioning hotel. And, when you go to the stadium,…when you’re at the stadium, there’s not going to be a lot of rain barrels and breeding sites for these mosquitoes around. So, I don’t believe that a lot of the people who are going to be going to the Olympics are likely going to be in a situation where they will be in a situation where they will be exposed at any level to the virus anyway. This is more likely going to be problem for the residents and particularly the poor residents.”

Still, the Zika virus is cause for worry among Florida leaders, including Governor Rick Scott. With 10 more cases reported Friday, Florida has nearly 250 cases, and more than a third of state’s 67 counties has reported the mosquito-borne disease. And, Florida recently got its first case of a baby born with microcephaly—a Zika-related birth defect.

Gov. Rick Scott held two Zika roundtable discussions this week. In this picture, he's speaking during the one in Jacksonville.
Credit Florida Channel

“Let’s think about it,” said Governor Scott. “We’re in hurricane season. We’re in rainy season. We’ve got the Olympics coming up in [less than] 40 days. So, if you follow what’s going in whether it be Puerto Rico and Brazil or other places, this is a significant issue. But, it’s clearly an issue that if we do the right things we can control the spread of Zika. Just think about that child that was just born with microcephaly. We don’t want another child to end up with microcephaly.”

Disappointed that Congress has yet to act on Zika funding bills, Governor Rick Scott has since authorized $26.2 million of the state’s funds for preparedness and prevention efforts.

A House bill for $1.1 billion just recently failed to advance in the U.S. Senate, after Democrats blocked it. It contained other provisions, like reversing a ban on flying the Confederate flag in military cemeteries and cutting funds for birth control services provided by Planned Parenthood.

And, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) says it’s sad that how even months later this Zika funding tragedy is playing out.

“So why can't we grow up and get to the point that we don't want to play partisan politics,” asked Nelson. “This is a real threat, it's a serious threat. The CDC has confirmed that zika does, in fact, cause birth defects. You know how horrific and tragic it is for the families involved.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), though, did support the proposal, saying it’s “better than nothing.” Especially with the Olympics around the corner, Rubio believes there will be an increase in travel-related cases with airport and seaport travel—as Florida is the “gateway to Latin America countries,” like Brazil.

Either way, FSU Athlete Kellion Knibb is hopeful for her chances in the Olympics and may even hear that famous “Olympic Fanfare and Theme Song.” Her qualifying trials begin Friday.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.