Women athletes face tough Olympic decision as Zika spreads

WASHINGTON — With the Summer Olympic Games set for August in Brazil, some athletes are nervous about whether to head to the country that has been caught up in the Zika virus outbreak, but U.S. Olympic authorities are working to keep players informed.

The highest-profile athlete to voice concern so far is Hope Solo, goalkeeper for the U.S. women’s national soccer team, who told Sports Illustrated earlier this week, “If the Olympics were today, I would not go.”

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So far, the worst effects of the Zika virus appear to be an increased risk of birth defects, including microcephaly (an abnormally small head), among the babies of women who contracted the virus while they were pregnant. Current warnings say that pregnant women should consider postponing trips to 14 countries, including Brazil, and women who may want to become pregnant should wait until after getting back to do so.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, sports columnist for USA Today, reported earlier this week that the U.S. Olympic Committee has brought on two infectious-disease specialists, including at least one woman, to consult with athletes and keep them informed about the facts of the virus, as well as the evolving science.

Brennan tells WTOP that the move is a sign that the committee understands “how big a deal it is when someone the magnitude of Hope Solo, one of the stars of your Olympic team, as well as your soccer team,” makes such a decision.

“It was such a big deal that the U.S. Olympic Committee acted in a big way,” Brennan says. “They are going to be doing some things, and doing them now.”

The U.S. Olympic Team had more women (269) than men (261) in the Summer Games in London in 2012, Brennan says, and this year in Brazil will likely be the same. “And almost all of these athletes are young women of childbearing age.”

Given that the Olympics are still six months away, there is still time for athletes to obtain the information they need to feel confident about deciding whether to compete, Brennan says.

“If the Rio Olympics were next week, I would imagine we would have wholesale defections. … And that would be a shame, because, of course, this is what they work for more than anything else.”

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, tells WTOP that an athlete’s decision to go to Brazil comes down to their own personal decisions regarding pregnancy.

“If there is a possibility that they are pregnant, or might become pregnant during their stay down there, then there’s obviously a reasonable concern about pausing before making a decision to go down there.”

Fauci adds that women shouldn’t worry about the effects of the Zika virus on pregnancies that may happen well into the future: “We can’t say anything for certain, because there’s still a lot to learn, but it is highly unlikely.”

Female athletes aren’t the only ones who need to be concerned, Fauci says.

The disease has been shown to be sexually transmitted, and many with the disease don’t know they have it. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis, which can signal any one of a number of diseases.

Male athletes should be aware, Fauci says, that the CDC recommends that they abstain from sex or use condoms if they plan to have sex with their pregnant wife or girlfriend or someone who might become pregnant.

All well and good, but it’s pretty difficult to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes in Brazil in August, particularly for those wearing relatively minimal athletic gear. When not competing, Fauci says, athletes — and spectators as well — should wear as much clothing as possible to protect themselves, and use insect repellent with 30 percent DEET.

“Obviously, sometimes that’s going to be difficult, when athletes are performing … but at all other times, as best as possible, try to protect yourself from insect bites.”

Fauci adds that Brazilian authorities “are trying to clean up the environments where mosquitoes breed.”

Unfortunately, the mosquitoes that spreads Zika are “very vigorous breeders … anything that’s standing water — pots, pans, tires, even little pools of water in the environment,” Fauci says. Brazil is employing up to 200,000 soldiers to remove such environments, he adds.

THE VIRUS OUTBREAK has triggered speculation that the International Olympic Committee might move the Games, but Brennan says, “I don’t think that there’s time now. … There’s just no way to do something of that magnitude.”

If the outbreak rose to the point where it might “scare off hundreds of athletes, then my sense is you would not have the Olympic Games. But I strongly believe the Olympics will take place, and that the information and knowledge that the athletes have as they go into the Games hopefully, will be enough,” she said.

She points out that the 1988 Games, in Seoul, South Korea, were beset by threats that North Korea would attempt an armed disruption; in London in 2012 and Sochi in 2014, there were threats of terrorism; in Beijing in 2008, it was smog. “Almost every Olympics,” Brennan says, “there’s something.”

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