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FEATURE No Zika at the Olympics - but the epidemic isn't over for Brazil By Georg Ismar and Andreas Noethen, dpa

Europe
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Pre-Olympic fears over a Zika outbreak in Rio were so strong that some called for the Games to be cancelled, yet there hasn‘t been a single reported case during the competition - mainly thanks to the South American winter. But poor sewage systems in Brazil mean the virus is likely to return as temperatures increase.

Rio de Janeiro (dpa) - The only person at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for whom Zika has caused problems was the person who was most prepared for it.

Hope Solo, the goalkeeper for the US women‘s football team, was taunted throughout her team‘s matches by fans resentful of pictures she had posted on social media of her precautionary anti-virus measures.

One picture featured her wearing a face mask and with her head covered by a mosquito net, another showed her bed covered in a variety of insect repellents. In February, she had even indicated that she intended to miss the Games altogether because of her fears over the virus.

The Rio locals were left unimpressed with what they perceived as Solo‘s depiction of their country as a virus-riddled backwater, chanting "Ole, ole, ole, ole, Zika, Zika!" and booing her mercilessly.

Many Brazilians felt that Solo had exaggerated the danger of contracting Zika, especially as the Games are being held in the South American winter, where the drop in temperature means that the main carrier of the virus - the Aedes aegypti mosquito - is very few in number.

The fans‘ scepticism has been well founded: the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not as yet reported a single case of the virus during the Olympics.

And yet before the Games, 200 academics sent a letter to the WHO asking them to consider postponing or even cancelling the Games - this despite the WHO‘s emergency committee saying that the chances of an international outbreak of the virus in the aftermath of the Games was "very low."

The WHO advised pregnant women not to travel - the virus can cause the birth defect microcephaly - but declared Rio safe for everyone else. Despite there being no evidence that contracting Zika can pose a risk to a the foetus during future pregnancies, Hope Solo cited her wish to start a family as a reason for her extreme caution - or "due diligence," as she puts it - prior to the Games.

There have been estimates of as many as 1.5 million Zika cases in Brazil, though accuracy is difficult as many people do not realise that they are infected. The Brazilian ministry of health has officially confirmed 174,000 cases since the outbreak of the epidemic in April 2015. "That‘s 85.1 cases per 100,000 citizens," a spokesman said.

That number is significantly higher in the federal state of Rio de Janeiro, with 278.1 cases per 100,000. According to the ministry of health, there had been 1,709 instances of microcephaly reported between October 2015 and July this year.

Of those, only 267 were confirmed as having been caused by the mother being infected with Zika during the pregnancy. Microcephaly can also be caused by the consumption of alcohol while pregnant.

The ministry of health has written up a rubric on the "myths and truths" about Zika, but their PR before the tournament was hardly ideal: images of yellow-clad anti-mosquito commandos being sent into action during the insects‘ peak season in February went around the world and hardly served to soothe pre-Olympic concerns.

Despite the fans‘ triumphalism - and the authorities‘ relief - about the absence of Zika cases during the Olympics, the virus is likely to come back with a vengeance as winter gives way to spring.

According to a Brazilian medical research team, poor sewage systems in many parts of Brazil create the damp conditions ideal for Zika-carrying mosquitoes to lay their eggs.

The team found that 55 per cent of Brazilian households have either inadequate or no connection to public sewers, with the situation particularly bad in the rural north and northeast of the country.

There is one ray of hope on the horizon: because a person can only contract Zika once, it could be that many in Brazil are already immune to the virus. Some experts say that this could mean the virus will eventually stop spreading.

Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London‘s Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling, is one of those.

"We expect the current epidemic to be largely over within three years," he writes in Science magazine.

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