Are Olympians Right to Worry About Zika in Rio?

Peter Russell

June 22, 2016

Rory Mcllroy has become the latest golfer to pull out of the Olympics in Brazil because of concerns about the Zika virus.

In a statement, the 27-year-old said "my health and my family's health comes before everything else.

"Even though the risk of infection from the Zika virus is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take."

Four-time major winner McIlroy was set to represent Ireland in Rio.

One expert is describing his decision as "extreme".

Microcephaly

The Zika virus has been linked to cases of microcephaly in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. The virus is spread by mosquitoes and unprotected sex, and is known to circulate in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas, including Brazil, which is hosting the 2016 Olympics this summer.

Vijay Singh and Australia's Marc Leishman have already pulled out of the games because of concerns about Zika.

The British long jumper Greg Rutherford has had his sperm frozen before the competition in Rio because of concerns about Zika. In an interview with the Standard Issue magazine, his partner Susie Verrill said: "We’d love to have more children and with research in its infancy, I wouldn’t want to put myself in a situation which could have been prevented."

Sporting bodies have been particularly disappointed by Mcllroy's decision because 2016 marks the return of golf as a recognized Olympic sport after a 112-year absence. It last featured in the 1904 Games in St Louis, US.

'A Unique Set of Circumstances'

The International Golf Federation said it was disappointed with Mcllroy's decision to withdraw but said it recognised "that some players will have to weigh personally a unique set of circumstances as they contemplate their participation in golf’s historic return to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, with the Zika virus foremost among them".

The Olympic Council of Ireland said "we have total confidence that the Games will be safe for all athletes" but that it was down to the individual to make the final decision.

Several experts have commented in statements on Rory Mcllroy's decision.

Jimmy Whitworth, professor of international public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says: "Rory Mcllroy has made a personal decision not to attend the Rio Olympics. That is as it should be, we do not know his personal circumstances and we should respect his decision.

“Golf courses would not be particularly dangerous places for getting infected with Zika. The mosquitoes involved in transmitting the infection live around houses and rarely fly more than 50 metres from the breeding sites.

"For most people Zika virus causes a mild illness, often not even clinically apparent. If you do become ill you will be fully recovered in a week or so. Rarely complications such as Guillain Barré syndrome may occur, but we should put this into perspective. This syndrome is as common or commoner after ordinary gut infections, such as Campylobacter, which are likely to be more common in Rio than Zika anyway.

"The most credible estimates suggest no more than 10-20 infections with Zika among the half a million athletes and visitors going to Brazil for the Olympics."

'Little to Worry About'

Dr Derek Gatherer, lecturer in the Division of Biomedical and Life Sciences at Lancaster University, comments: "If Mr McIlroy is contemplating becoming a father within a year or so, then it is a perfectly reasonable precaution to stay away from regions of active Zika transmission.

"On the other hand, if he is not going to become a father any time soon, he has little to worry about, provided he takes the usual precautions for tropical countries, which for Brazil now includes no unprotected sex for at least 8 weeks after returning even for men who experience no symptoms."

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, says: "Obviously I don’t know the reasons for this decision, but it does strike me as being extreme. The chances of being infected by Zika virus is low, especially if you protect yourself from mosquito bites by covering up and using a good insect repellent."

SOURCES:

The International Golf Federation.

The Olympic Council of Ireland.

BBC News.

Standard Issue Magazine.

Science Media Centre.

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