R

IO DE JANEIRO — Olympic athletes may be arming themselves with “Zika-proof” jackets and pants, but on the ground in Rio de Janeiro, locals stroll down the beach in thong bikinis and no bug spray.

There just aren’t many mosquitoes.

Leading up to Friday’s Olympic opening ceremonies in Rio, the worldwide hype about the Zika virus — including this New Yorker cover showing Olympic runners fleeing a cloud of mosquitoes — has been hard to avoid. So it’s hard to believe until you get there, but it’s winter in Rio, and even if you wanted to, you’d have a hard time finding Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to infect you.  

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Of course, winter in Rio doesn’t mean mittens and boots. In August, temperatures typically range between 66 and 78 degrees. But that’s cool for Brazil, and data show cases of dengue, which is transmitted by the same mosquito, drop off here during this time of year. In a week in Rio in July, traveling around Olympic sites and throughout the city and its outskirts, I saw just two mosquitoes. The weather was mild, with chilly nights and steady breezes. 

On the famous tourist beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, guys played early morning volleyball games wearing nothing but tiny swim trunks. On warmer days, women wore skimpy bikinis from morning to dusk.

Marcia Castro, a Rio native and associate professor at Harvard’s public health school, said she carried bug spray while visiting family in Rio during July, but found no reason to use it.

“I saw no mosquitoes at all,” she said.

People who suggest arriving in Rio with mosquito head nets are showing “ignorance of the real situation,” said Castro. She published an article in June arguing that the Zika risk does not warrant postponing the games.

“People must get informed of the evidence … not just get their ‘information’ from sensationalist articles,” she wrote in an email. “At the end of the day, they look ridiculous.”

There are real risks, of course: Because the virus can cause crippling birth defects, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge pregnant women not to travel to Brazil. For tourists who do go, the WHO recommends bug spray, long sleeves, and condoms during sex. 

But the risk of infection is small: Yale researchers estimate that in a worst-case scenario, between three and 37 people — out of the 350,000 to 500,000 expected to attend the games — will contract the virus in Brazil. Most who get infected won’t have symptoms.

Before the games, the Olympic committee held 44 test events with 7,000 athletes, 8,000 volunteers, and 2,000 staff during times of the year when more mosquitoes would be expected, and found no cases of Zika, said Philip Wilkinson, spokesman for Rio 2016. The organization has been fervently trying to quell Zika fears. The number of new Zika cases per month in Rio dropped 93 percent from January to June, due largely to winter temperatures, according to municipal health officials.

That hasn’t stopped athletes from stocking up on anti-Zika products.

US soccer goalie Hope Solo has threatened to sequester herself in her hotel room in Rio. She posted pictures of herself on Twitter wearing a mosquito head net and lining up an artillery of bug spray — which earned her boos and chants of “Zika! Zika!” when she played in Rio Wednesday.

South Korean athletes plan to wear special “Zika-proof” uniforms, long pants and long-sleeved jackets laced with mosquito-repellent. Australian Olympians planned to bring special “anti-Zika condoms” for its Olympic athletes, even though traditional condoms will block Zika transmission just as well.

Chinese gymnasts have set up mosquito nets around their beds. US athletes will receive blankets infused with bug repellant, though it’s not clear how many will want to wrap up in them. 

Other athletes — mainly in tennis and golf — have cited Zika as a reason for skipping the games entirely. But critics charge Zika is just a convenient excuse for athletes who would rather save their time and energy for more lucrative competitions.

US Olympic sailor Stuart McNay said he has already spent about seven months in Rio and nearby Niteroi over the last two-and-a-half years with no Zika problems. He said he’s concerned about Zika, but not enough to skip the games: He just plans to use bug spray and close the windows at night.

Kate Grace, a runner from California making her Olympic debut in the 800-meter dash, said she’s skipping the opening ceremony and staying in Rio as short a time as possible — but not because of Zika. Because of traffic and the long commute between where she’s staying and the race track, she said it makes more sense to practice in the States in the days leading up to her Aug. 17 race.

Grace said some of her fellow athletes have sisters or friends who aren’t coming because of pregnancy-related Zika concerns. But she doesn’t expect Zika to affect her experience, except that she might throw on bug spray before she runs.

Former US gymnast Carly Patterson, a three-time Olympic medalist, turned down offers to work at the games as a correspondent for “Today” and an ambassador for USA Gymnastics because of Zika.

Patterson said has been trying to get pregnant for a year now. Even if she didn’t develop any symptoms of Zika, the CDC still recommends women wait eight weeks after visiting Brazil before trying to get pregnant. So in the least, the visit could disrupt her pregnancy efforts.

“With the struggle that we’ve had, we don’t want to put it on hold for that much longer,” she said.

After she went public with her decision to skip the games, she was approached by one of the many companies seizing on the Olympics as a chance to market bug repellants. She agreed to market an organic bug spray — and even handed out bottles to US gymnasts at the Olympic trials this summer.

For Patterson, there’s another drawback to skipping the games: That leaves her home in Dallas, where it’s blazing hot in the summer. There have been no reported cases of local transmission there so far, but Texas is among the states bracing for a possible Zika outbreak.

“It’s very possible that it could be right in my backyard,” she said. “That’s obviously really scary.”

Patterson said she and her husband are trying to stay inside as much as possible and wear bug spray.

“I’m ready for it to be winter,” she said.

Drew Joseph and Thalita Pires contributed reporting.

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  • I was in Rio and suburbs for olympics. I didn’t see any mosquitos and used repellent once. The folks I traveled with never used repellent. The west really exaggerated Zika threat.

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