Zika Virus May Spell Trouble for the Rio Olympic Games

U.S Olympic Committee officials suggest that athletes concerned about Zika stay on the sidelines this year

zika spray
Local workers disinfects the famous Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 26 January 2016. MARECELO SAYAO/epa/Corbis

Officials from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) recently advised sports federations to consider skipping this summer’s Olympic games if athletes and support staff are worried about contracting the Zika virus, Daniel Bases and Joshua Schneyer report for Reuters.

On a conference call in late January, officials said athletes and staff shouldn’t attend the Rio Games "if they don't feel comfortable going. Bottom line," Donald Anthony, the president of USA Fencing, tells Bases and Schneyer.

Already there are murmers of Kenya possibly dropping out from the event if the situation with Zika virus worsens. 

Over the last year, there has been growing international concern about the outbreak of Zika virus in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. This mosquito-born virus appears to be linked to a birth defect called microcephaly—a condition causing abnormally small head, which can cause brain damage along with a host of other problems.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak an international public health emergency, Rob Stein reports for NPR. And this week, the White House announced that it is asking Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funds to help combat the virus at home and abroad.

"One of the things that they immediately said was, especially for women that may be pregnant or even thinking of getting pregnant, that whether you are scheduled to go to Rio or no, that you shouldn't go," Anthony tells Bases and Schneyer. "And no one should go if they feel at all as though that that threat could impact them."

The USOC has not issued any public recommendations for athletes planning on competing in the Rio Games this summer. Despite concerns about the virus, however, Olympic officials say the Summer Olympics will continue as planned.

“We are closely monitoring the situation through the CDC and have ongoing contact with the International Olympic Committee, the organizing officials in Rio, the World Health Organization and infectious disease specialists with expertise in tropical diseases, including the Zika virus,” USOC representative Patrick Sandusky tells Alexandra Sifferlin for TIME. “Additionally, we’re taking steps to ensure that our delegation and those affiliated with Team USA are aware of the CDC’s recommendations regarding travel to Brazil.”

Currently, there is no vaccine for the Zika virus, which is spread by the Aedes aegpyti mosquito. Researchers are still investigating the link between Zika and microcephaly, but in the meantime the CDC is recommending that pregnant women avoid traveling to countries where Zika has been reported and take measures to prevent mosquito bites if they do have to travel.

The CDC also recommends that pregnant women with male partners who have traveled to these regions avoid having unprotected sex with them for the duration of their pregnancy.

Health concerns have plagued the Rio Olympics for months as the city prepares to host Latin America’s first Olympic games. Last year, an investigation by the Associated Press found dangerously high levels of bacteria and viruses from untreated sewage in bodies of water designated for swimming and boating competitions. Many foreign athletes who are already training in the country have reported getting ill. While Brazilian officials promised to clean up the waterways by the start of the Olympics, critics say the problems are too big to solve by this summer.

The race is on as Brazilian officials struggle to get the Zika outbreak under control in time for the Olympics.

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