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Athletes weigh Zika virus risk

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

Champion New Zealand hockey player Kayla Whitelock is taking a sit tight and see philosophy about the Zika virus which has thrown an ugly shadow over the Rio Olympics.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has reiterated government advice that "expectant mothers, or those planning pregnancy, do not travel to areas with the Zika virus present".

The mosquito-borne disease is spreading rapidly through South America with World Health Organisation estimates putting the number of people to have contracted the virus at 1.5 million.

Especially at risk are those pregnant, or planning pregnancies in a period of weeks after being in Brazil, host country for this year's Olympics.

New Zealand's Ministry of Health advice includes using effective contraception for a minimum three weeks after returning from an affected area.

As fears surrounding the extent of the virus grow, closer to home the Ministry of Health has extended its Pacific travel advice around Zika to include Tonga and Samoa as areas of active transmission. In most cases there are no symptoms, and those who do get them may only have them for up to a week. But there has been an unusual increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly, or birth defects affecting head size and brain development in Brazil.

WHO have called an urgent executive meeting tomorrow to decide if Zika should be treated as a global emergency.

All of which is troubling for athletes, and spectators, heading to the Olympics next August.

Whitelock, a mother of one young daughter and a certainty to be in the world's fourth-ranked Black Sticks squad in Rio, said it is too early to be making decisions on whether to travel to Brazil.

"It is a concern," she said yesterday. "In terms of Rio, it still seems quite far away, and so it's hard to really judge at the moment.

"We trust in what the NZOC comes out with and we'll be informed as we go along. But I'd say a lot of athletes will see it as a concern."

Hockey is a sport which will be particularly worried, given matches are played on watered artificial pitches, which attract mosquitos.

From the perspective of New Zealand's Games team, hockey will have 16 players in Rio, while the only other sport expected to have a comparable number of women athletes is rowing, who are likely to have 20 athletes chasing medals on Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, and football.

The NZOC are running information workshops in February and March for all national associations with a constant upgrading of information as it becomes available.

Rio officials are already fumigating venues and draining areas of stagnant water build-up in the city and Games event locations.

Among the possibilities under consideration for New Zealand athletes will be mosquito nets over beds and electronic bracelets to ward off the insects.

"Every team around the world will be looking at this, but you can't really make a call this far out," Whitelock said.

"Every individual is going to have a different viewpoint. If it's going to be a major problem, you want to make a big decision early. You don't want to disrupt the team [by] pulling out just before.

"Everyone has to make their own decision and you respect that."

The Games are taking place in the winter months in Brazil where traditionally a drier, cooler climate helps reduce mosquito numbers.

According to the International Olympic Committee, advice to travellers heading to affected areas includes wearing appropriate clothing (long trousers and sleeves) and what it usefully calls plenty of "mosquito bite avoidance measures".

The IOC statement concludes that "we remain confident that there will be a safe environment for successful and enjoyable Olympic Games".

What you need to know about Zika
? The mosquito-borne virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and cases have since been reported in other parts of Africa, southern Asia, the Pacific Islands and the Americas.
? One in five people affected will feel sick. The symptoms appear 3-12 days after getting the infection and last 4-7 days.
? In rare cases, it can lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a serious immune system disorder.
? Symptoms include a low grade fever, joint and muscle pain, headaches, red eyes and a flat red rash and feelings of weakness and tiredness.
? A major concern is that pregnant women who get infected can transmit the disease to their unborn children, with reports there have been an increase in severe birth defects where mothers were in affected areas.

- Herald on Sunday

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