The U.S. Olympic Committee is taking steps to limit the risk of athletes contracting the Zika virus at the Summer Olympics in Brazil and to treat any who do,
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but will leave the final decision on whether to travel up to individual competitors, officials said on Monday.
The mosquito-born virus, linked to a spike in the rare birth defect microcephaly, has hit Brazil hard and has spread through much of Latin America and the Caribbean, raising concerns for athletes planning to compete in August in Rio De Janeiro, particularly those thinking of having children after the Games. The USOC will provide athletes with mosquito nets and bug spray and is considering bringing additional medical staff to deal with concerns around the illness, USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun told reporters in Los Angeles on Monday. “It is going to be up to each individual athlete to make his or her decision,” Blackmun said, referring to the expected 550 U.S. competitors.
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“We don’t want to be in the business of making health policy.” The committee on Friday formed a group of three volunteer medical advisors to protect U.S. athletes and Olympic staff from infectious diseases including Zika while in Rio. Two of those doctors are women, Blackmun said, noting that organizers are aware Zika poses the greatest risk to women who could become pregnant. “I’m not aware of a single athlete that has made a decision not to attend because of conditions in Rio,” Blackmun said. Some athletes said they were paying close attention to the spread of Zika but believed the USOC and Rio organizers were doing enough to protect them.
“There are always things that are beyond our control at the Olympic Games and this is just one of them,” said Natalie Coughlin, a 33-year-old swimmer hoping to make Rio her fourth games. “They’re giving us all the information so that we can make a fully educated decision.” Golfer Stacy Lewis, 31, said she was worried about Zika. “I’m a little bit worried – for sure,” Lewis said. “I don’t think I can sit here and say I’m not going to go if it gets bad. I think you have to see how things play out, but it’s definitely a concern.” Brazilian and Olympic officials have sought to dispel some concerns about Zika by saying that August – mid-winter in the southern hemisphere – is typically a time when there are fewer mosquitoes in Rio.
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Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether the virus actually causes microcephaly in babies, a condition defined by unusually small heads that can result in developmental problems. Brazil said it has confirmed more than 640 cases of microcephaly, and considers most of them to be related to Zika infections in the mothers. Brazil is investigating more than 4,200 additional suspected cases of microcephaly. Scientists are predicting that Zika could spread to every country in the Americas but Canada and Chile. “This is not just a problem in Brazil,” Blackmun said. “This is a problem in the Americas.”