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NZ Olympic bosses give athletes Zika warning

An Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. Photo / AP.
An Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. Photo / AP.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee will support any female athlete who chooses not to compete in Rio because of the risk of contracting the Zika virus.

The NZOC has responded to concern surrounding the mosquito-borne disease which is spreading rapidly across South America just six months before the Games begin.

In a statement released on Friday, the New Zealand Olympic Committee reiterated government advice to team members.

"At this stage, this advice is that that expectant mothers or those planning pregnancy do not travel to areas with the Zika virus present."

The committee said the Zika virus was "particularly worrying".

"We would support any athlete or support staff member in their decision to not attend the games ...."

Athletes and officials will meet at workshops in February and March to discuss the matter further.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach says guidelines will be sent to National Olympic Committees to best protect the health of athletes and all visitors to Rio in August.

He says the IOC will work closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO), which warned the virus, linked to birth defects in thousands of babies, was spreading "explosively" and could affect as many as four million people in the Americas.

The NZOC will pass on information from the New Zealand Government as it comes to hand to all its athletes and support staff.

"At this stage the advice is that that expectant mothers or those planning pregnancy do not travel to areas with the Zika virus present," NZOC public affairs and communications director Ashley Abbott told NZ Newswire.

"We would support any athlete or support staff member in their decision to not attend the Games if this were the case."

The IOC advised national Olympic committees on Friday to follow the World Health Organization's guidance on dealing with the Zika virus ahead of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, asserting its confidence that the games will be safe.

Brazil has been hit hard by the mosquito-borne virus, which has been linked to severe birth defects in infants, raising concerns about the outbreak's potential impact on South America's first Olympics in August.

The International Olympic Committee sent a note to all national Olympic committees outlining the latest medical advice concerning Zika, the most recent problem for a country already dealing with a severe economic crisis and a sprawling corruption scandal.

"All parties are taking action to address this topic, and are following developments closely," the IOC said.

The two-page note from the IOC medical commission repeated advice for travelers to take precautions against mosquito bites and for women who are planning to become pregnant to assess the potential risks of traveling to areas infected with the virus.

"The IOC remains in close contact with the WHO to ensure that we have access to the most up-to-date information and guidance, from now through to Games time," the IOC statement said.

"At the same time NOCs should consult with their national health authorities to get advice and guidance."

The IOC did not say the Olympics were threatened in any way and made clear it expects the Aug. 5-21 games to be secure for athletes and visitors.

"We remain confident that there will be a safe environment for successful and enjoyable games in Rio de Janeiro," the statement concluded.

The WHO, which declared Thursday that the Zika virus was "spreading explosively," will hold an emergency meeting of independent experts Monday to decide if the outbreak should be declared an international health emergency.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Friday announced a nationwide attack on the mosquito that spreads that Zika virus, vowing to "win this war" against the insect.

The mosquito has been linked by Brazilian researchers to a seemingly sudden upsurge in cases of microcephaly, in which children are born with abnormally small heads. The virus has also been linked to the paralysis-causing Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Brazilian researchers believe the strain of Zika may have entered Brazil with visitors arriving for the 2014 World Cup.

Mario Andrada, spokesman for Rio's Olympic organizing committee, said there was no threat of the games being postponed or canceled because of the outbreak.

"We're not even thinking of that," he said. "This has never been mentioned. No way. It's impossible to do that. There is no reason to do that."

The IOC reiterated the position that, because the games will be held during the southern hemisphere winter, the mosquito population will be smaller and the threat of the virus diminished.

The IOC cited current medical advice that all travelers should take measures to avoid mosquito bites, including wearing long pants and long sleeves and using insect repellent.

Women who are planning to become pregnant should discuss travel plans with their health providers to assess the risk, it said.

The IOC said the WHO does not recommend any change to travel plans, but noted that some national authorities have recommended "on a precautionary basis" that pregnant women should consider avoiding travelling to areas infected by Zika.

The IOC noted that plans had already been put in place by Brazilian organizers for daily inspection of Olympic venues to remove any puddles of stagnant water where mosquitoes breed.

"Rio 2016 will also continue to follow the virus protection and control measures provided by the authorities, and will provide the relevant guidance to games athletes and visitors," the statement said.

Andrada, the Rio Games spokesman, said organizers held a conference call Friday with sponsors to explain preventive measures. He said officials had started inspecting the venues and already noticed an improvement.

"In the beginning, the first few days of inspecting, we found a lot (of stagnant water)," Andrada said. "Now it's dropped dramatically."

The Australian Olympic Committee said this week that any pregnant team members "need to consider the risks very carefully" before deciding whether to go to Brazil.

The U.S. Olympic Committee said it was monitoring the situation through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the IOC, the WHO and infectious disease specialists.

The European Olympic Committees said it was following events and also expects that each individual country "will be taking strict precautions and will be advised by their own health authorities."

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