SYDNEY (Reuters) - A small Australian maker of bug sprays became an unlikely beneficiary of the mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreak this week when the country’s Olympic team signed it up as its first official insect repellent sponsor.
As authorities around the world scramble to contain the virus declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization, Melbourne-based Juno Laboratories Pty Ltd said it would supply 1,000 tubes of its Bushman “Heavy Duty” repellent gel for Australians at the Rio de Janeiro games in August.
The move points to the unpredictable nature of health planning for the first Olympic Games in a tropical location since Mexico City in 1968. Six months before they begin, doctors have yet to confirm a suspected link between the virus and thousands of birth defects in Brazil, let alone stop it spreading.
The first known case of Zika virus transmission in the United States was reported in Texas on Tuesday by health officials who said it likely was contracted through sex and not a mosquito bite. The virus is spreading rapidly in the Americas, and WHO officials expressed concern that it could hit Africa and Asia as well.
Australia plans to send 450 athletes and 330 support personnel to the world’s biggest sporting event.
“We’ve been talking with our team members about (health preparations) for the last couple of years,” the Australian Olympic Team medical director, David Hughes, told Reuters. “While Zika is new, the issue of mosquito borne-diseases is not, and we’re prepared for that.”
The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) was in sponsorship talks with Juno for several months before Zika hit pandemic status in South America in 2015.
The AOC was concerned about other mosquito-borne diseases in Brazil like yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya, as well as the effects of Brazil’s water pollution on sailors and other competitors in aquatic events.
“They asked us to supply the product, then the Zika virus hit and it became a lot more pointed,” said Juno managing director Andrew Raper.
He added that the company would stick to its regular formula of 80 percent diethyltoluamide, known as DEET. Juno will tell AOC officials to ensure athletes are covered in the gel, as well as taking other mosquito-proofing measures like using bed nets and air-conditioning and keeping away from still water.
Australian Olympic chef de mission Kitty Chiller, who competed in the pentathlon in Sydney in 2000, said none of the 1,000 athletes hoping to compete had expressed any concern about Zika, but “from a duty of care point of view we need our athletes to be aware of what the status is and what the risks are”.
Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Nick Macfie