Health & Medicine

Is Zika risk too great at Rio Olympics? Some athletes, travelers opt to stay home

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland has joined the list of top athletes opting to sit out the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro because of concerns about the Zika virus.
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland has joined the list of top athletes opting to sit out the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro because of concerns about the Zika virus. The Associated Press

Last week, Rory McIlroy, Europe’s top-ranked golfer, became the latest athlete to say he would sit out the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this summer because of concerns about the Zika virus. He joins a list of other standouts, including golfers Marc Leishman of Australia and Vijay Singh of Fiji, and American cyclist Tejay van Garderen.

So how risky is a trip to the heart of the Zika epidemic?

There’s still a lot that researchers don’t know about the Zika virus, which took Brazil by storm in the spring of 2015 and continues to spread via mosquito bite and sexual transmission in more than 60 countries.

The virus causes only mild illness in adults but can lead to a devastating neurological defect in unborn children. It’s not yet known exactly how long Zika remains in the body after infection or during what time frame it can be passed from mother to child.

Given the uncertainty, it’s not surprising that some people are choosing not to attend the August games out of fear for their health and that of their families, said UC Davis infectious disease expert Dr. Dean Blumberg.

“There are so many unknowns, it comes down to an emotional decision,” he said. “There really is this potential for grave danger to the fetus, for birth defects. It’s reasonable for them to consider these risks and make these very personal decisions.”

Both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared that the games in Brazil are safe to attend for anyone except pregnant women, although they also acknowledge some degree of risk to couples hoping to conceive. No conclusive research has emerged yet about how long after infection Zika can stay in semen, so safe sex practices are encouraged for six months after symptoms appear. Experts also don’t know whether women who aren’t pregnant when they contract the virus risk passing it to a fetus if they conceive later in life.

Recent research indicates that between 1 percent and 13 percent of women who contract Zika during their first trimester of pregnancy will deliver an infant with microcephaly, a destructive brain cell disease that causes the child’s skull to cave in because there isn’t enough tissue to hold it up. A suspected 4,800 Brazilian babies have been diagnosed with microcephaly to date.

U.S. cyclist van Garderen told media outlets earlier this month that he would remove his name from a list of Olympic hopefuls, saying he didn’t want to risk bringing anything back that might harm his wife or their child due in October.

McIlroy, who is engaged to be married, echoed the concern, saying he was unwilling to put his or his family’s health at risk. Several athletes and coaches have said they will freeze sperm before heading to the country.

Granite Bay native Haley Anderson, 24, said she will be on alert when she travels to Rio to compete in open water swimming this summer, not just because of the Zika outbreak but because of contamination issues off the city’s beaches.

After doing research, she said, she concluded the Zika risk wasn’t high enough to stop her from competing since she isn’t planning to have a child anytime soon. She also said she believes the water off Copacabana Beach, where her Olympic event will be held, has been cleaned up enough for swimming as long as she takes antibiotics and probiotics before she competes.

Still, she said, the public health threats have had a big impact mentally as she prepares for the games.

“When you have to think about all these other things, it gets frustrating,” Anderson said. “I just want to be worried about training and being the fastest and the best I can be. If you have this doubt in the back of your head, that changes things.”

Her parents, Randy and Colette Anderson, said preparing for the trip to Rio has been a different experience than when they followed their daughter to the 2012 Olympics in London, where she won a silver medal in open-water swimming.

The couple, who live in Granite Bay, have been looking into what shots to get and how to prevent mosquito bites, and have received extensive instructions, Randy Anderson said. Health officials have asked anyone traveling to the Olympics to stay up to date on routine vaccinations, as well as travel-related shots against illnesses such as hepatitis and typhoid.

“We’re not going to be in the water, and we’re not going to go out into the countryside,” he said. “I think we just have to be a little smarter. We’re definitely reading up. We’re going. We will just make sure we’re as up to date on everything as we can be.”

About 20 percent of people who contract the Zika virus come down with symptoms such as rash, fever and joint pain, which last two to seven days.

The virus is flourishing in countries with high concentrations of the Zika-carrying Aedes mosquito, which can hatch in a drop of water and bites during the day and night. The disease can live in human blood for up to two weeks; travelers returning from Zika-infested countries are asked not to donate blood for a month after travel.

I think we just have to be a little smarter. We’re definitely reading up. We’re going. We will just make sure we’re as up to date on everything as we can be.

Randy Anderson, father of Olympic swimmer Haley Anderson

So far, 819 travel-associated Zika cases have been reported in the United States, brought back by the hundreds of travelers who have visited Zika-endemic countries since the outbreak began in May 2015. Because of the low concentration of the Aedes mosquito in most parts of the United States, the likelihood of Zika spreading from person to person is small, said Daniel Epstein, spokesman for the Pan American Health Organization. The mosquito, however, is more common in southern parts of the country, including Texas and Florida.

“It’s possible that a traveler will be bitten by a mosquito, and it’s possible that they will get dengue or chikungunya or Zika, all of which are prevalent in Brazil,” Epstein said. “It’s unlikely that a traveler would come back and start a chain of transmission in the U.S. You need enough people and enough mosquitoes to start a chain of transmission.”

In a January statement, the International Olympic Committee said it would take extensive measures to minimize Zika risk, such as clearing venues of stagnant water and informing athletes and visitors about mosquito-avoidance tactics, which include wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, applying bug repellent and staying in enclosed, air-conditioned spaces whenever possible.

The committee also noted the sporting event is being held during Brazil’s winter, when there are fewer active mosquitoes.

Blumberg of UC Davis, however, said the virus is so new and understudied that it’s not unreasonable for people to want to stay far away from the countries where it’s prevalent.

“It’s worrisome,” Blumberg said. “I’m not sure the information we’re getting out of Brazil is entirely up to date or accurate.”

Vincent Gee, a part-time Sacramento resident, took his time considering whether to fly to Rio in early September to work as a bicycle mechanic for the U.S. para-cycling team. He concluded that the threat of Zika wasn’t high enough to keep him from going. He does plan to wear insect repellent and avoid mosquito-dense areas.

“There’s danger everywhere,” Gee said. “What are the dangers of getting hit by an airplane or in a car accident? What are the odds of getting bit by a mosquito carrying the Zika virus? I feel confident that I will be more than OK.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

Advice for travelers to Rio de Janeiro

▪ Pregnant women are advised not to travel to areas of ongoing Zika virus outbreaks, including Brazil.

▪ Everyone who travels should practice mosquito avoidance.

▪ Women who discover they are pregnant while in Brazil or shortly after returning should contact their health care providers.

▪ Pregnant women whose sexual partners live in or travel to areas with Zika outbreaks should practice safe sex or abstain from sex for the duration of their pregnancy.

▪ Travelers should practice safe sex or abstain from sex during their stay in Brazil, and for at least eight weeks after their return. If men experience symptoms of Zika disease, they should adopt safe-sex practices or abstain from sex for at least six months.

▪ Travelers returning from Brazil should not donate blood for at least four weeks.

World Health Organization, Health Advice for Travelers to the 2016 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games