The United States Olympic Committee told U.S. sports federations that athletes and staff who are concerned for their health over the Zika virus can avoid the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in August 2016.
Officials from USOC told delegates from numerous federations in a late-January conference call that if people fear contracting the virus during the upcoming games they should skip the two-week long event, according to two people who participated in the call.
Sports bodies were told that, "Bottom line," no one should go to Brazil "if they don't feel comfortable going," said Donald Anthony, president and chairman of USA Fencing.
Will Connell, director of Sport at the U.S. Equestrian Federation, said the USOC will allow individual athletes and staff members to have the final say on whether they participate in the games.
"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."
A baby with microcephaly is prepared for a blood test in Brazil. | Photo: Reuters
Former Olympian Donald Anthony added that women who are pregnant or plan to get pregnant were warned off the games by the USOC due to Zika’s possible link to microcephaly, which causes newborns to have abnormally small heads and brain damage.
"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," said Anthony.
The mosquito-borne infection has been sweeping its way across Latin America since late 2015, with Brazil the most affected country.
An estimated 1.5 million people in Brazil have contracted the virus, which is often symptom-less.
Brazil has seen a corresponding rise in microcephaly, with over 3,400 babies born with the defect. The World Health Organization "strongly suspects" there is a connection and has classified Zika as a public health emergency.
In the build-up to the Olympics, which is set to bring 500,000 foreign tourists to Rio, Brazilian authorities have started major clean-up operations in a bid to rid densely populated areas of the Aedes aegypti mosquitos that carry the Zika virus.
Last week, the Inter Press Service news agency reported that Brazil will deploy some 220,000 troops in an attempt to stem the spread of the disease.
The fear of a microcephaly epidemic recenlty led health officials in El Salvador to advise women to delay pregnancy until 2018.
A vaccine against the infection has yet to be developed.
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