Israel Urges Pregnant Women to Avoid Rio Olympics

Women who are planning to get pregnant soon should also be cautious of the dangers posed by the Zika virus, Health Ministry warning says.

A sign in front of the Olympic Village in Rio, June 23, 2016.
Silvia Izquierdo/AP

Pregnant women and women who are planning to get pregnant should forgo going to Brazil for the Olympic Games, the Israeli Health Ministry warned on Monday.

The ministry issued the warning against traveling to Rio due to the fear of infection by Zika, a virus recently discovered to cause serious malformations in babies, including microcephaly. The recommendation appears in “Directives for Travelers to the Olympic and Para-Olympic Games in Brazil,” a new pamphlet published by the ministry.

Zika is a mosquito-borne disease that had been known for decades, but had not been thought to cause serious illness. Since early 2015, it became linked in Brazil to birth defects – specifically, to the previously very rare condition called microcephaly, or “small head,” which is characterized by modest to extreme impairment of the brain’s development.

In very unusual cases, the virus has been known to be transmitted not by mosquitoes but by sexual intercourse. While adults usually do not develop symptoms beyond rash and discomfort, in rare cases, the Zika virus may cause a fatal neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome.

The Health Ministry added that its warning to women doesn’t apply if they plan to stay at altitudes higher than 2,000 meters above sea level, because the mosquito carrying the virus doesn’t live there.

The recommendation against travel applies not only to pregnant women but to women planning pregnancy. The ministry also warned women who have already visited Brazil not to get pregnant for 8 weeks afterward.

Men who have traveled to Brazil – even if they show no symptoms – are advised to avoid sex for eight weeks after their last potential exposure, or to use condoms, the ministry said. Actually, it clarified, the no-sex/condom rule applies to absolutely everybody, regardless of gender, age or intentions to gestate.

If a man goes to Brazil and shows even one symptom of Zika, he should eschew sex for six months or use condoms, according to the ministry, which also urged people to consult their doctors if in doubt, or if symptoms show up within two weeks of a Brazil trip – fever, rash, joint ache, eye infection (red eyes).

Aside from this, all one can do when entering an area where the mosquito lives is avoid getting bitten, the ministry noted.

It is worth adding that Brazil is not alone in dealing with Zika cases: In fact, the disease originated in Uganda, Africa and only made its great leap to South America in 2015.

Also, Zika is transmitted by several species of mosquito, the most common being Aedes aegypti, aka the yellow fever mosquito. The tiger mosquito, another widespread species, can also carry the virus. Both are extremely common mosquitoes worldwide.

So far, nine Israelis are known to have contracted Zika. Though the World Health Organization has warned Israel that it (and many other countries) has a moderate risk of developing endemic Zika, all nine affected individuals contracted the disease abroad.