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Will Zika virus overshadow the Rio Olympics?

In Brazil, epicenter of the Zika virus, local authorities and organizers of the upcoming Olympic Games have been striving to assure the world that it's safe for athletes and tourists. The World Health Organization has issued a series of guidelines for those traveling to Rio, but some worry warnings could stigmatize struggling communities. Special correspondent Lulu Garcia-Navarro of NPR reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Several athletes have decided not to attend the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this August. Some male competitors have taken the precaution of freezing their sperm in advance of going.

    The reason? Zika. Brazil has been severely affected by the virus, shown to cause birth defects. There have even been calls among some in the international community to move the Games.

    But the World Health Organization, or WHO, now says it's safe.

    "NewsHour" producer Jon Gerberg and NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro report now on Brazilian reaction to the controversy.

  • MAN:

    Hey, man, what's up.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Paulo Cesar Vieira, known by his nickname Peanut, is something of a celebrity in his favela, or informal settlement of Rocinha.

  • PAULO CESAR VIEIRA, Brazil:

    I feel proud. I am from here, but I am so proud because, since kids, I always dreamed to see my favela up.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    A community leader and a tour guide, he had hoped that the coming Olympics would be the next step in improving the lives of everyday Brazilians. But then Zika happened.

  • MAN:

    The Zika virus and its potentially devastating consequences continue to spread.

  • MAN:

    Growing fears now among Olympic athletes and fans worldwide over the looming threat of the Zika virus.

  • WOMAN:

    Hundreds of thousands of people traveling to Brazil this summer for the Olympics. We already have a pandemic on our hands. What could happen?

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Brazil is the epicenter of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. In advance of the Rio Games, Olympic organizers and local authorities have been spraying facilities and struggling to assure the world that it is safe for athletes and tourists to come here.

    A group of international media, which included "PBS NewsHour," was invited to film health inspectors in Rio's Jacarepagua neighborhood last week. Mosquito eradication measures like these have been taking place across the city. At the local health clinic, doctors told us that Zika is a much smaller problem right now.

  • VIVIANE DOS SANTOS, Doctor (through interpreter):

    In the summer months, we had more Zika cases, because we have more mosquitoes. We had around 10 cases per week. Now we have seen a decline. Currently, we have about one case every 15 days, very little.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Even though they are called the Summer Games, they will be taking place in South America's winter, which is typically cooler with fewer mosquitoes. One local resident told us that he's actually worried about what other diseases tourists and athletes could bring, as Zika was actually discovered in the forests of Uganda.

    So, Paulo Jozze thinks that actually the Brazilians are the victims here. He points out that the Zika virus actually arrived in Brazil from outside of the country.

    But it's the Zika virus that has overshadowed the run-up to the Olympics here; 234 scientists and global health experts recently wrote a letter to the World Health Organization calling for the Games in Rio to be canceled, postponed or even moved. "An unnecessary risk is posed when 500,000 foreign tourists from all countries attend the Games, potentially acquire that strain, and return home to places where it can become endemic," it read.

    But Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, insisted that the seasonal decrease in mosquitoes would keep the epidemic at bay.

  • MAYOR EDUARDO PAES, Rio de Janeiro:

    This will not be a problem for the Games. Obviously, if you're a pregnant woman, you need to take more care of it. But come to Rio. This will not be a problem. I'm sure that, in one year time, if you come back here, we will say, OK, there was no Zika during Rio Games.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Olympics spokesman Mario Andrada echoed that sentiment, saying the Olympic venues were undergoing daily mosquito inspections.

    MARIO ANDRADA, Rio 2016: We are 100 percent sure that our tourists, our athletes, our guests will be safe in Rio. And we do the best to protect them.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    The WHO has agreed and says there is no reason to move the Games. It's issued a series of guidelines for those coming to Rio. They include warnings to pregnant women and sexually active men.

    More controversially, however, the WHO initially advised foreign tourists to avoid visiting impoverished and overcrowded areas in cities and towns with no piped water or poor sanitation.

  • BRUCE AYLWARD, World Health Organization:

    It is in the poorer, impoverished areas where you're more likely to find still water or stagnant water that has collected rainwater or whatever is being kept. It is really just looking at what factors help drive the higher mosquito density, the probability of getting bitten by mosquitoes. And that will be higher in those areas.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    But some experts disagree. The threat of mosquitoes breeding in dirty, stagnant water is real. But the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads Zika and dengue, among other diseases, likes to breed next to clean water.

    Brazilian biologist Claudia Codeco is with Brazil's largest scientific research center. She also says, in Rio, rich and poor live side by side and mosquitoes don't respect class boundaries.

  • CLAUDIA CODECO, Biologist:

    We know from many studies that these mosquitoes, they can breed in any type of environment. So this is not a particular problem of poor areas. It can actually breed in any type of environment.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    The concern among some in Brazil is that telling people disease and the favelas are connected could prove unnecessarily harmful to poor and struggling communities, which are already stigmatized.

    Peanut, our host in Rocinha, is among those worried. The sprawling informal settlement is the largest in Rio de Janeiro, home to tens of thousands of people. And he was hoping to introduce tourists to his favela.

  • PAULO CESAR VIEIRA:

    People in other countries have totally bad information about us. You know, it's important we take them and they see the reality of favela.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    And what is the reality?

  • PAULO CESAR VIEIRA:

    The reality is the people.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    Peanut showed us an herb called arruda, which has a pungent smell. He buys from local vendors and wears it to ward off the mosquitoes.

    With regard to his tourism business, he says his hopes are not high. He blames what he calls propaganda in the international press.

  • PAULO CESAR VIEIRA:

    I hope many tourists come. But I don't believe it much, because they have very strong propaganda all over the world: Don't come to Rio. Don't come to Colombia. Don't come this — don't come to South America, because they have Zika.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    He says his own message is very different.

  • PAULO CESAR VIEIRA:

    Come to the Olympics. Come to the favela. And have a good time. I know nothing bad will happen with you.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    But not everyone is so sure, including those who have dealt with the virus' most harmful effects.

    Pollyana Rabello's son, Luis Felipe, was born with Zika-related microcephaly, a condition where children are born with small heads because the brain is underdeveloped. She says many mothers who've had children with congenital Zika syndrome in Brazil have been getting little government financial or medical help, despite many promises.

    POLLYANA RABELLO, Mother of Microcephalic Child (through interpreter): If our country is unable support its own people, who are Brazilians, who pay taxes, why bring others if you can't even support these people?

    Zika hasn't gone away. It is here. And if it happened to us, it can happen to many more people. I think the Games shouldn't happen. I think this money they are investing in the Olympics should be invested in the health and well-being of the Brazilian population.

  • LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO:

    A desperately needed investment in the lives of the people, who will still have to grapple with Zika when the Olympics are just a memory.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro of NPR, Rio de Janeiro.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Tune in tomorrow, when we hear from local residents on the story behind Brazil's polluted waters, where some Olympic competition will take place.

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