Rio steps up fight against Zika virus in Olympics run-up

A Brazilian soldier searches for signs of mosquito larvae in a pool in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Jan 18.
A Brazilian soldier searches for signs of mosquito larvae in a pool in Sao Paulo, Brazil on Jan 18. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Rio de Janeiro promised stepped-up measures to eradicate Zika virus-carrying mosquitoes at Olympic venues before the Games start in six months, amid a regional health scare.

Zika, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, has been blamed for causing serious birth defects if a mother is infected during pregnancy. These include microcephaly, in which the baby is born with an abnormally small head.

A dramatic growth in incidents across Latin America, notably in Brazil, has prompted governments to warn pregnant women about travelling to the region - a sensitive topic as Rio prepares to become the first South American city to host the Summer Games, starting on Aug 5.

Brazil and several other countries have even advised women to delay getting pregnant.

"The mayor's office will be intensifying inspections for the Olympics in August, despite this being a period with lower numbers of mosquitoes," City Hall said in a statement on Sunday.

"About a month before the opening of the Games a team will visit all competition sites to eliminate possible concentrations," the mayor's office said.

The Rio mayor's office said its campaign against the mosquitoes would be helped by the fact that the Games will take place during the southern hemisphere winter, but there would still be an increase in preventative efforts.

The city health department fields 3,000 agents daily all year around and "during the Games there'll be a dedicated team focused on the Olympic installations," the mayor's office said.

Officials say a key measure is getting rid of stagnant water, an easy breeding ground for mosquitoes.

However, about 80 per cent of mosquito breeding takes place in and around housing, "which shows that the fight... is a duty for all," the mayor's office said.

The first test for the city amid the Zika scare is the annual carnival, which is just getting under way and will see huge crowds, including many tourists, gathering in the streets.

At one street party Saturday, carnival-goers danced to a song that caught the mood of fear - and defiance - in the Olympic city.

"If the water stops, the larvae come, the larvae give birth to the mosquito," one verse went. "Chase away Zika!"