Brazil's Rio Carnival conquers Zika fears with repellant and samba

Revellers of Grande Rio samba school performing during the carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, on Feb 8, 2016.
Revellers of Grande Rio samba school performing during the carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, on Feb 8, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS
Beija-Flor samba school's Drum Queen Rayssa Oliveira (second right) performing during the carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.
Beija-Flor samba school's Drum Queen Rayssa Oliveira (second right) performing during the carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: REUTERS
Beija-Flor samba school's Drum Queen Rayssa Oliveira performing during the carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.
Beija-Flor samba school's Drum Queen Rayssa Oliveira performing during the carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: REUTERS
Revellers of Beija-Flor samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade at Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.
Revellers of Beija-Flor samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade at Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: AFP
Revellers of Beija-Flor samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade at Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.
Revellers of Beija-Flor samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade at Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.PHOTO: AFP
Revellers of the Estacio de Sa samba school leaving the Sambadrome after parading in the carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
Revellers of the Estacio de Sa samba school leaving the Sambadrome after parading in the carnival in Rio de Janeiro. PHOTO: REUTERS
Revellers of Uniao da Ilha do Governador samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade at Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.
Revellers of Uniao da Ilha do Governador samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade at Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro. PHOTO: AFP
Members of the Uniao da Ilha do Governador Samba School performing during the first day of the Special Group Samba Schools parade of Carnival at the Sambadrome on Feb 7, 2016.
Members of the Uniao da Ilha do Governador Samba School performing during the first day of the Special Group Samba Schools parade of Carnival at the Sambadrome on Feb 7, 2016.PHOTO: EPA
Revellers of Uniao da Ilha do Governador samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade.
Revellers of Uniao da Ilha do Governador samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade.PHOTO: AFP
Revellers of Uniao da Ilha do Governador samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade.
Revellers of Uniao da Ilha do Governador samba school performing during the first night of the carnival parade.PHOTO: AFP
Revellers of Uniao da Ilha samba school performing during the carnival parade on Feb 7, 2016.
Revellers of Uniao da Ilha samba school performing during the carnival parade on Feb 7, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - With crazy costumes, pulsating music - and a dab of mosquito repellent - the Rio Carnival's top performers swatted aside Zika worries Sunday (Feb 7) to get down for the world's biggest party.

Some 70,000 fans cheered, sang and shook their hips in the stands of Rio's purpose-built dancing stadium, the Sambadrome, as competing ensembles, or samba schools, passed in a blur of feathers, glitter, flesh and extraordinary floats depicting everything from castles to gods.

The samba dance-off between the 12 best schools out of around 100 in Brazil's most iconic city was the culmination of a Carnival season drawing an estimated five million partygoers over several weeks.

Parades, with each school featuring thousands of dancers, drummers and singers, were to run all night, then again through a second, final night Monday (Feb 8).

And nothing - certainly not the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus blamed for causing a rash of birth defects in Brazil - was getting in the way.

"We've all got repellent on," said Yasmin Victoria, 27, who was with the Uniao da Ilha samba school. "But I don't think any kind of fear would be enough to stop Carnival."

"Despite the problems in our country, our people can't lose their love of partying. And whatever happens in our country, it's still the country of samba," added her cousin Luanny Victoria, 19, who was about to dance in a skimpy golden outfit with vast green feather wings. "People have to put those problems aside, at least for the three days of Carnival."

Rio will become South America's first city to host the Summer Olympics this August and the Carnival looked forward to the event at its opening ceremony with a huge model of the Olympic torch.

The Uniao da Ilha school took the Olympic theme for its parade, with Greek gods, gyrating judo fighters, men on bicycles suspended in the air. There was even a nod to the Paralympics with a dancing and singing wheelchair contingent.

Certainly if organising parties was an Olympic sport, Brazil's Carnival would sweep the podium.

Samba schools spend as much as US$3 million (S$4.2 million) on productions that take nearly the whole previous year to prepare, then just an hour to perform. And although nearly the entire cast is unpaid, the choreography would make Broadway jealous.

This year, hard economic times have hurt the Carnival industry, denting sponsorship and raising the prices of imported fabrics used to make costumes. In 48 Brazilian cities, the Carnival was cancelled altogether.

But Lucas Fernandes, a 17-year-old drummer, said he lived for this chance to parade in the Sambadrome.

"The Rio de Janeiro Carnival is something magical," said Fernandes, who practiced twice a week for 10 months to be ready. "Although Brazil is a country with problems, the Carnival brings us happiness."

Given its economic and political woes, Brazil hardly needed another crisis. But the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus blamed for causing brain damage and abnormally small heads in babies, gatecrashed the party.

Adding to the fear of mosquito-transmitted infections are unconfirmed reports that the virus may also be spread through contact with human saliva and blood.

Earlier this week, US health officials confirmed the first case of sexually-transmitted Zika, involving a person who had travelled to Venezuela and infected a sexual partner in Texas upon return.

To fight back, Brazilian authorities have sent out the army and municipal health workers across the country to tackle mosquito breeding sites and to educate the public.

The Sambadrome was fumigated ahead of the Carnival and similar fumigating teams will deploy through the city before the Olympics start in exactly six months.

Many in Brazil, especially expectant mothers, are spooked.

Sales of repellant are up sharply, manufacturers, say, with one brand, Osler, reporting an 800 per cent increase in the December 2015-January 2016 period, year on year.

Ketleen Oliveira Silva, 25, said she is eight months pregnant, but carefully protected herself before coming to the open air event at the Sambadrome.

"I even put repellent on my make-up," she said. "I'm ready for the fiesta."