Despite all the hullabaloo, experts aren’t convinced that Zika is going to be a big deal at this year’s Olympic Games. It’s winter in Brazil, and places from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization say the risk of the virus spreading during the games is relatively low. The WHO’s recommendations for avoiding the mosquito-borne disease are fairly straightforward: “Everyone, including pregnant women and women of childbearing age, should avoid exposure to mosquito bites, for example, by wearing long sleeves and long pants, (and) using mosquito nets during the daytime as well as insect repellents.” In other words, cover up and use bug spray.
But that reasonable advice hasn’t been enough to quell the anxieties of many excitable Olympic-goers. So to stay on the safe side, spectators and athletes—that is, the ones who haven’t already dropped out due to fears of contracting the disease—are now taking their health into their own hands. Panic might be the mother of innovation, because Zika panic has spawned a host of creative solutions, from anti-Zika condoms to facial masks and sperm-freezing. The problem is that many of these so-called prevention measures are ineffective, excessive—and could even be harmful.
Let’s start with the hundreds of “anti-Zika” condoms doused in anti-viral gel that the Australian team recently accepted from pharmaceutical companies. Last month a CDC spokesman told Slate there was “no evidence” that these would stop Zika any more than your typical condom already does, since all rubbers prevent sexually-transmitted infections. However, the gel may pose other health problems for athletes getting frisky in the Olympic village. Nonoxynol-9, a compound closely related to the SPL7013 used in these anti-viral gels, has been shown to boost the risk of HIV in users, Slate notes. So much for giving Aussie Olympians an edge down under.
Condoms are only the tip of the snake oil iceberg. During official ceremonies and at the Olympic village, South Korean competitors will reportedly don long-sleeve, “Zika-proof” uniforms infused with mosquito-repelling chemicals. While fashionable, these chemical-laden uniforms leave experts scratching their heads. “I guess they’re just talking about uniforms with long sleeves that will protect your skin from getting beaten, if that’s what they mean by Zika-proof uniforms,” says William Perea, a health technical expert with the WHO’s Zika response team. Not to mention that athletes still have to wear their traditional short-sleeved uniforms while competing in Olympic events anyways.
The CDC has recommended standard Zika prevention kits for pregnant women, which include mosquito netting, bug spray, and (normal!) condoms. But some countries aren’t convinced this is enough. Taiwan is providing its athletes with their own version, which contains “a thermometer to be used to measure an athlete’s temperature every day and a facial mask to wear in crowded public spaces, as well as alcohol swabs, a bottle of hand disinfectant,” according to the Taipei Times. That’s great if you’re goal is to protect yourself from dirt and bacteria—but Zika, as far as we know, is transmitted solely through mosquitos and sexual contact. “Still, why not?” says Perea. “It’s a great idea as long as the operation packs have some repellents the athletes will actually use.”
Apart from flu-like symptoms, Zika is relatively harmless to men (and most women) who contract it. However, a man who has contracted Zika can then pass it on to his sexual partner, who can in turn pass the virus on to her fetus—which is why experts recommend men wait at least six months after returning from a Zika-affected region before engaging in unprotected sex. As Jay Varma, New York City’s deputy commissioner for disease control, said last month at a Zika panel at the American Museum of Natural History: “It doesn’t necessarily hurt those who get infected, but it hurts how we reproduce, and that’s bad news for the species.”
In the wake of such warnings, some Olympic-goers who do plan to reproduce are pursuing extreme contingency plans. In June, gold medalist long jumper Greg Rutherford of Great Britain announced that he would freeze his sperm to ensure an uncontaminated sample for future potential pregnancies with his partner. And he isn’t the only one: John Speraw, the coach of the U.S. men’s indoor volleyball team, recently said he would be doing the same. “My wife and I would like to have another kid,” Speraw told The New York Times, adding, “I’m no spring chicken.” Fair enough.
Besides athletes, Zika panic has also inspired a thriving industry of dubious anti-Zika products meant to soothe the nerves of anxious travelers. Look up “Zika prevention” on Amazon.com and you’ll find safari-esque mosquito hats that function like mobile bed nets; bug-repellant bracelets that sound impressive but are “based on little “competent and reliable scientific evidence” according to the American Mosquito Control Association’s Joseph Conlon; and so-called high-tech ultrasonic pest repellers that have come under scrutiny from the from the Federal Trade Commission.
Don’t put too much stock in repellants based on “natural” ingredients, either. According to STAT, one Utah company recently tried to get in on Zika panic by rebranding an organic bug spray made from ingredients like lemon eucalyptus, peppermint and geranium as “Zika Pro Plus.” Unfortunately for them, a 2015 study in the Journal of Insect Science found that Victoria’s Secret perfume repels the types of mosquitoes carry Zika better than many of the “natural” repellents on the market. (On the plus side, at least spraying yourself with mint and flowers won’t cause any actual harm.)
All this is to say: Keep your Zika-skepticism radar up this summer, and consider following the CDC’s recommendation to just stick with bug spray and long sleeves. Maybe it is possible to stay too safe.