Why South Korea has Zika-proofed its Olympic uniforms

There’s now less than 50 days to go before the 2016 summer Olympics

In a country scarred by the MERS virus, talk in South Korea is not about the success of their athletes at the competition but instead what measures they can take to prevent a virus that will devastate infant’s lives.

With its birth rate declining over recent years, the protection of family and its continuation, is vitally important in South Korea. According to a report by the Macquarie Securities Group, the proportion of people aged 40 years old and younger plummeted to 48.1% in 2015 compared to 69.4% in 1995. It’s predicted that by 2045, if the situation doesn’t change, South Korea will have the oldest population in the world. Hence South Korea has become the first country to ‘Zika proof’ their uniforms ahead of the Olympic games this August.

At this point you most likely will have heard of Zika. It’s a mosquito-borne virus that has been linked to birth defects amongst babies and it’s believed t can be transmitted sexually. According to the World Health Organisation for most people the symptoms of Zika are rather mild, with patients suffering a mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain. Most sufferers get over the illness in less than seven days.

However for pregnant women it’s an entirely different matter.  Most notably Zika can cause microcephaly amongst newborns. This is a condition where the infant’s brain doesn’t develop normally and as a result the child is born with an abnormally small head.

It’s for this reason that the Olympic Committee of South Korea is taking extraordinary measures to protect its athletes, who will travel to Brazil this summer, a country with a significantly high proportion of Zika cases (Over 91,000 cases to date).

As of the 15th of June last, 60 countries have reported cases of Zika. Twelve of these babies have been born with birth defects linked to Zika. However the World Health Organization says there's a "very low risk" of the Zika virus spreading further across the world as a result of the Rio Olympics and Paralympics.

The agency's emergency committee says that's largely because the Games will be held in the Brazilian winter. Even so the unique thing about the particular mosquito that spreads the virus, is that it is active during daytime hours. So while it won’t be as active, it will be out and about, while the athletes are competing.

As a result South Korea has found a way to alter the fabric in their team uniforms in order to give the athletes the best protection against mosquito bites. For starters the outfits that they’ll wear in the Olympic Village and at ceremonies have long sleeves and pants. The fabric itself is also infused with mosquito repellent.

The idea isn’t a new one, it’s just that in recent years efforts to create so called ‘Smart Clothing’ have focused primarily on, making fabric breathable, watches and fitness trackers. A Seattle based company sells clothing along a similar vein, although instead of repelling mosquitos the Solumbra hats and hoodies repel UV rays emitted by the sun.

Over ten years ago Taiwan announced its clothing manufacturers were focusing on ‘functional fabric technology’. The South China Morning Post, says Anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, negative ion and far-infrared are all examples of functional textiles developed in the island nation with health in mind. It’s embedded with a low-toxic of insect repellent, so that it doesn’t irritate the wearer’s skin.  

In addition to all of this South Korean athletes will also be issued with mosquito repellent spray. And their Olympic committee has paid a visit to Rio De Janeiro specifically, to ensure the measures being put in place in advance of the games are adequate.

However despite their best efforts the authorities have been unable to alter the uniforms the athletes will wear while they’re actually competing. It’s said to be down to a lack of time to develop them since the Zika outbreak and of course the inability to test whether or not they’ll affect athletes’ performance.

South Korea has yet to reveal exactly how it’s embedded the mosquito repellent into the uniforms, or offered to share the knowledge with other equally concerned competing nations. In fact it seems to be the only country going to these lengths to prevent their teams picking up Zika while in Brazil this summer.

Team Ireland’s been advised to return home immediately after competing this August and not to hang around for the festivities. While athletes and visitors alike are being advised against having unprotected sex for up to six months after their return for any region that has registered cases of Zika.

It should be noted anyone returning from a Zika infected region and who develops symptoms of Zika, must contact their medical practitioner and have the case registered with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.