Officials: US athletes should consider not attending Olympics if fear Zika

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Will Zika Affect Rio's Olympics?

The United States Olympic Committee told U.S. sports federations that athletes and staff concerned for their health over the Zika virus should consider not going to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in August.

READ MORE: What is the Zika virus? Your questions answered

The message was delivered in a conference call involving USOC officials and leaders of U.S. sport federations in late January, according to two people who participated in the call.

Federations were told that no one should go to Brazil "if they don't feel comfortable going. Bottom line," said Donald Anthony, president and board chairman of USA Fencing.

The USOC's briefing to sport federations is the latest sign that Olympics officials are taking the Zika threat to the games in Rio de Janeiro seriously, and acknowledging that at least some athletes and support staff could face a tough decision over whether to attend.

See more of the spread of the virus:

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Officials: US athletes should consider not attending Olympics if fear Zika
An Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The mosquito is a vector for the proliferation of the Zika virus currently spreading throughout Latin America. New figures from Brazil's Health Ministry show that the Zika virus outbreak has not caused as many confirmed cases of a rare brain defect as first feared. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
A Sucre municipal worker fumigates for Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus in the Petare neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. Venezuela is reporting a jump in cases of a rare, sometimes paralyzing syndrome that may be linked to the Zika virus. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
In this Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 photo, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes sit in a petri dish at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. The mosquito is a vector for the proliferation of the Zika virus spreading throughout Latin America. New figures from Brazil's Health Ministry show that the Zika virus outbreak has not caused as many confirmed cases of a rare brain defect as first feared. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
RECIFE, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 01: David Henrique Ferreira, 5 months, who was born with microcephaly, is examined by a doctor on February 1, 2016 in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Ferreira's mother says she spends up to eight hours per day in transit on buses, three days per week, to visit a litany of doctors with David. In the last four months, authorities have recorded thousands of cases in Brazil in which the mosquito-borne Zika virus may have led to microcephaly in infants. The ailment results in an abnormally small head in newborns and is associated with various disorders including decreased brain development. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus a 'public health emergency of international concern' today. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Health ministry personnel fumigate a classroom against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, vector of the dengue, Chikungunya and Zika viruses in Tegucigalpa, , on February 1, 2016. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez on Friday declared the country on a preventive state of alert due to the Zika virus which in the last 44 days killed a person and infected some 1000. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
In this Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 photo, Daniele Ferreira dos Santos holds her son Juan Pedro as he undergoes visual exams at the Altino Ventura foundation in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Santos was never diagnosed with Zika, but she blames the virus for her sonâs defect and for the terrible toll it has taken on her life. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
A man works on a fence amidst a cloud of insecticide as city workers fumigate to combat the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes that transmits the Zika virus, at the San Judas Community in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Worries about the rapid spread of Zika through the hemisphere has prompted officials in El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil to suggest women stop getting pregnant until the crisis has passed. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
A health worker stands in the Sambadrome as he sprays insecticide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmits the Zika virus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Inspectors begin to spray insecticide around Sambadrome, the outdoor grounds where thousands of dancers and musicians will parade during the city's Feb. 5-10 Carnival celebrations. Brazil's health minister says the country will mobilize some 220,000 troops to battle the mosquito blamed for spreading a virus linked to birth defects. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Carmen Chicas Mejia, 82, covers her mouth and nose while city workers fumigate her home to combat the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus, at the San Judas Community in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Worries about the rapid spread of Zika through the hemisphere has prompted officials in El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil to suggest women stop getting pregnant until the crisis has passed. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
Dead insects and larvae float in an empty vase at a cemetery in Cartagena, Colombia, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Local health workers emptied vases during a campaign to destroy potential hatcheries of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmits the Zika virus at a the cemetery as part of a prevention campaign that according to the health ministry has already infected more than 16,000 people in Colombia, and could hit more than half a million. (AP Photo/Reinaldo Reyes)
A woman covers her mouth while city workers fumigate insecticide to help combat the Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus, at the San Judas Community in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Worries about the rapid spread of Zika through the hemisphere has prompted officials in El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil to suggest women stop getting pregnant until the crisis has passed. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
A health worker stands in the Sambadrome as he sprays insecticide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. Inspectors began to spray insecticide around the Sambadrome, the outdoor grounds where thousands of dancers and musicians will parade during the city's Feb. 5-10 Carnival celebrations. Brazil's health minister says the country will mobilize some 220,000 troops to battle the mosquito blamed for spreading a virus linked to birth defects. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Members of the Migente foundation check mosquito traps in the Paris neighborhood, Bello municipality, Antioquia department, Colombia on January 26, 2016. The Study and Control of Tropical Diseases Program (PECET) of Antioquia's University released one year ago Aedes aegypti mosquitos carrying the Wolbachia pipientis bacteria, which prevents them from transmitting the Zika and dengue viruses, as part of project to fight dengue. The Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease suspected of causing serious birth defects, is expected to spread to all countries in the Americas except Canada and Chile, the World Health Organization said. AFP PHOTO /Raul ARBOLEDA / AFP / -- / RAUL ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
A photographer walks through the fumes as Health Ministry employee fumigate against the Aedes aegypti mosquito to prevent the spread of the Zika virus in Soyapango, six km east of San Salvador, on January 21, 2016. Health authorities have issued a national alert against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, because of the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome in fetuses. AFP PHOTO/Marvin RECINOS / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Army soldiers check for Aedes aegypti mosquito larvae during a clean-up operation against the insect, which transmits the Zika virus, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on January 22, 2016. AFP PHOTO/Miguel SCHINCARIOL / AFP / Miguel Schincariol (Photo credit should read MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images)
Army soldiers check for Aedes aegypti mosquito larvae during a clean-up operation against the insect, which transmits the Zika virus, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on January 22, 2016. AFP PHOTO/Miguel SCHINCARIOL / AFP / Miguel Schincariol (Photo credit should read MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images)
Army soldiers check for Aedes aegypti mosquito larvae during a clean-up operation against the insect, which transmits the Zika virus, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on January 22, 2016. AFP PHOTO/Miguel SCHINCARIOL / AFP / Miguel Schincariol (Photo credit should read MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images)
A health agent from the Sao Paulo secretariat of public health and army soldiers check for Aedes aegypti mosquito larvae during a clean-up operation against the insect, which transmits the Zika virus, in Sao Paulo, Brazil on January 22, 2016. AFP PHOTO/Miguel SCHINCARIOL / AFP / Miguel Schincariol (Photo credit should read MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AFP/Getty Images)
A Health Ministry employee fumigates a home against the Aedes aegypti mosquito to prevent the spread of the Zika virus in Soyapango, six km east of San Salvador, on January 21, 2016. Health authorities have issued a national alert against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, because of the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome in fetuses. AFP PHOTO/Marvin RECINOS / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Health Ministry employee fumigates a home against the Aedes aegypti mosquito to prevent the spread of the Zika virus in Soyapango, six km east of San Salvador, on January 21, 2016. Health authorities have issued a national alert against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, because of the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome in fetuses. AFP PHOTO/Marvin RECINOS / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A Health Ministry employee fumigates a home against the Aedes aegypti mosquito to prevent the spread of the Zika virus in Soyapango, six km east of San Salvador, on January 21, 2016. Health authorities have issued a national alert against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, because of the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome in fetuses. AFP PHOTO/Marvin RECINOS / AFP / Marvin RECINOS (Photo credit should read MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)
Health ministry employees spray to eliminate breeding sites of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits diseases such as the dengue, chicunguna and Zica viruses, in a Tegucigalpa cemetery on January 21, 2016. The medical school at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) recommended that women in the country avoid getting pregnant for the time being due to the presence of the Zika virus. If a pregnant woman is infected by the virus, the baby could be born with microcephaly. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
A specialist fumigates the Nueva Esperanza graveyard in the outskirts of Lima on January 15, 2016. Health officials fumigated the largest cementery in Peru and second largest in the world to prevent Chikunguya and Zika virus, which affect several South American countries. AFP PHOTO/ERNESTO BENAVIDES / AFP / ERNESTO BENAVIDES (Photo credit should read ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images)
View of the Nueva Esperanza graveyard as it is fumigated in the outskirts of Lima on January 15, 2016. Health officials fumigated the largest cemetery in Peru and second largest in the world to prevent Chikunguya and Zika virus, which affect several South American countries. AFP PHOTO/ERNESTO BENAVIDES / AFP / ERNESTO BENAVIDES (Photo credit should read ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images)
A pregnant woman is attended at the Maternal and Children's Hospital in Tegucigalpa on January 21, 2016. The medical school at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) recommended that women in the country avoid getting pregnant for the time being due to the presence of the Zika virus. If a pregnant woman is infected by the virus, the baby could be born with microcephaly. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
A pregnant woman waits to be attended at the Maternal and Children's Hospital in Tegucigalpa on January 21, 2016. The medical school at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) recommended that women in the country avoid getting pregnant for the time being due to the presence of the Zika virus. If a pregnant woman is infected by the virus, the baby could be born with microcephaly. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)
Aedes aegypti mosquito larvae sit in a petri dish at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The mosquito is a vector for the proliferation of the Zika virus currently spreading throughout Latin America. New figures from Brazil's Health Ministry show that the Zika virus outbreak has not caused as many confirmed cases of a rare brain defect as first feared. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
A technician of the Fiocruz institue stores Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to be used in research, in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. The mosquito is a vector for the proliferation of the Zika virus currently spreading throughout Latin America. New figures from Brazil's Health Ministry show that the Zika virus outbreak has not caused as many confirmed cases of a rare brain defect as first feared. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
CORRECTS CDC IS INVESTIGATING WHETHER AEDES ALBOPICTUS SPREADS THE ZIKA VIRUS, NOT DEFINITIVE - This 2003 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a female Aedes albopictus mosquito acquiring a blood meal from a human host. On Friday, Jan. 15, 2016, U.S. health officials are telling pregnant women to avoid travel to Latin America and Caribbean countries with outbreaks of a tropical illness linked to birth defects. The Zika virus is spread through mosquito bites from Aedes aegypti and the CDC is investigating whether it is also spread by Aedes albopictus. The disease causes only a mild illness in most people. But thereâs been mounting evidence linking the virus to a surge of a rare birth defect in Brazil. (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via AP)
Aedes aegypti mosquitos are seen in containers at a lab of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences of the Sao Paulo University, on January 8, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal are in Brazil to train local researchers to combat the Zika virus epidemic. / AFP / NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Aedes aegypti mosquitos are seen in containers at a lab of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences of the Sao Paulo University, on January 8, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal are in Brazil to train local researchers to combat the Zika virus epidemic. / AFP / NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
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The United States won most medals at the last Olympics in London in 2012, so any disruption to its presence would be important for the Rio games.

Global health authorities suspect the mosquito-borne Zika virus has caused a spike in Brazil of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by an abnormally small head. As a result, the World Health Organization declared an international health emergency Feb. 1, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising pregnant women or those considering becoming pregnant to avoid travel to places with Zika outbreaks.

The USOC's Alan Ashley, its chief of sport performance, and other USOC officials, briefed the leaders of the federations.

Ashley did not respond to email or phone calls requesting comment.

USOC spokesman Mark Jones confirmed by email that Ashley had "briefed federation leaders on the CDC's recommendations and we will continue to ensure that athletes and officials affiliated with Team USA receive any updates from the CDC."

The USOC has not issued its own set of recommendations for athletes and staff beyond what the CDC and WHO have issued.

Jones declined to comment further.

EXPRESSED OPTIMISM

Recalling the conference call, Anthony, a former Olympian, said: "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."

"And no one should go if they feel at all as though that that threat could impact them," said Anthony, who praised the USOC's handling of the outbreak so far.

Zika outbreaks have been reported in 33 countries, most of them in the Americas. Symptoms of infection often are mild or imperceptible. But the outbreak in Brazil that began last year has been accompanied by more than 4,000 cases of suspected microcephaly; investigators have confirmed more than 400. The link to Zika is unproven but strongly suspected.

In El Salvador, which is experiencing outbreaks of the virus, women are being advised to put off pregnancy until 2018.

Will Connell, Director of Sport at the U.S. Equestrian Federation, said the USOC was leaving the decision up to individual athletes and staff members.

"They said no one who has reasons to be concerned should feel obliged to go," Connell said. "If an athlete feels that way, of course they may decide not to go."

During the call, the USOC did not indicate they were concerned that large numbers of athletes would avoid Rio or that Zika could derail the Games, the two federation leaders said.

Instead, officials expressed optimism that risk would be minimized by close cooperation among health agencies, mosquito control efforts and the Games' timing during Brazil's winter when mosquito-borne illnesses are less common.

The USOC officials on the call said the organization would adhere to the recommendations of health agencies including the CDC, the sport federation leaders said.

"As we get closer to the Olympics the guidance could get updated," Connell said.

In a Jan. 29 letter from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to national committees, the IOC's chief doctors said they were monitoring the situation closely. They passed along mosquito avoidance advice, but remained confident the games would go ahead as planned.

Both Connell and U.S. Fencing's Anthony said the USOC's message was focused primarily on the potential risks for women who are pregnant or are thinking about trying to become pregnant.

Since the call, the CDC has issued more guidance in light of increasing suspicion that Zika can be transmitted sexually. The CDC said Friday that men who reside in or have traveled to Zika-affected areas may want to abstain from sexual activity or use condoms.

The Olympics have long promised to be a triumphant showcase for Latin America, which is playing host to the global sports spectacle for the first time. Rio has also been expecting more than 380,000 tourists for the Games, which come as Brazil's economy is mired in recession and its government reels from a corruption scandal at state oil company Petrobras.

An ongoing Zika epidemic could prompt some athletes, staff, sponsors and high-spending tourists to steer clear of the Games. Even if the risk of infection to any given visitor is very low – as health experts expect – uncertainties persist. There is no Zika vaccine, and currently available blood tests cannot always detect the virus.

Olympics officials "are taking the right approach from a standpoint of, let's be cautious, do not do anything that is going to put anybody, our staff or our athletes in danger," Anthony said.

Anthony said no U.S. fencers had spoken to him about Zika.

"I think our athletes are aware," he said. "But it has not become a mission critical issue yet. Not yet."

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