Image: Head of Kenya’s Olympics committee, Kipchoge Keino speaks during a Reuters interview inside his office in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
By Drazen Jorgic
NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenya, with its stellar medal prospects for the Rio Games, caused a stir on Tuesday when the head of its Olympics committee said the team might withdraw because of Zika, but officials said later it was too soon to decide on the impact of the virus.
The mosquito-borne virus, which is widespread in Brazil and has been linked to birth defects, has prompted concern among athletes and sports officials around the world as they prepare for the Aug. 5-21 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOCK) head Kipchoge Keino said on Tuesday the country would not “risk taking Kenyans there if this Zika virus reaches epidemic levels,” and that he was seeking reassurance from organizers.
But NOCK played down the comments, saying the East African country was monitoring the potential health threats from the disease and receiving regular updates.
“It is too early to make a determination on the status of the virus during the Games time which is six months away,” said NOCK’s chief of mission for Rio, Stephen Soi.
NOCK said Keino “may have been quoted out of context”.
Kenya’s sports minister Hassan Wario said on Tuesday the country has not yet decided whether to take part after meeting with health officials, according to the best-selling Daily Nation newspaper.
Kenyan athletes include some of the best middle and long-distance runners in the world and would likely be among the star performers in Rio.
Zika has spread through most of the Americas, with Brazil the most affected country. The World Health Organization declared an international health emergency on Feb. 1 over the virus, citing concern over a possible link with a rise in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect characterized by an abnormally small head that can result in developmental problems. However, a causal link has not been proven.
WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier, asked about travel advice for the Olympics, especially for pregnant women, said at a briefing in Geneva on Tuesday that the U.N. agency had no specific travel recommendations now. He added, “if you are pregnant, or wishing to get pregnant, consult with your specific health authorities on specific country travel advice.”
The agency “is fully leaving it to national authorities to give out travel advice to the best knowledge and evidence they have available in the interest of their people,” he said.
DECISION FOR INDIVIDUAL ATHLETES
Sport authorities are watching developments closely. In many countries the approach appears to be keeping informed and understanding that the decision to go to Rio will come down to individual athletes. Still, the suggestion that athletes might choose to skip the Games is a worry for Olympic organizers.
The Rio 2016 organizing committee’s press office declined to comment on the concerns in Kenya, but said it’stood by previous comments. Organizers have said previously the Games take place in the southern hemisphere winter when mosquito levels are low and that they are monitoring the Olympic sit’s regularly to control mosquitoes.
The committee does not believe the potential situation will be sufficiently problematic for athletes to want to avoid competition.
The United States Olympic Committee told U.S. sports federations in late January that athletes and staff concerned for their health should consider not going to the Games. The message was delivered in a conference call involving USOC officials and leaders of U.S. sport federations, according to two people who participated in the call.
Australia’s Olympic Committee has said no athletes have indicated they intend to withdraw, but it would “totally understand” if they did. Similarly, New Zealand’s Olympic Committee has warned athletes and officials of the risks and a committee spokesman said any competitors who decided to opt out would receive the committee’s “absolute support.”
Australian tennis player and former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur said fears over the virus would play no part in her planning.
“It’s not going to deter me from going,” she told Reuters. “But obviously there are a lot of precautions you need to take moving forward to be there, but the Australian Olympic team are very thorough.”
The disease, which produces no symptoms in most people who are infected and relatively mild illness in those who do show symptoms, is mostly viewed as a threat to pregnant women or women who might get pregnant, because of the possible link to birth defects. While it is predominantly transmitted by mosquito, researchers are studying the possibility of infection through blood and sexual contact.
Brit’sh Olympic Association Chairman Lord Sebastian Coe said none of the country’s athletes were reluctant to go. But Brit’sh rower Andrew Triggs Hodge said his wife Eeke would not accompany him because of the “very real and frightening threat” posed by Zika.
There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika, so combating the outbreak is focused on eradicating mosquito populations and preventing mosquito bit’s.
Brazilian officials and Olympic organizers have said that August in Rio is drier and cooler than other times of the year, and less hospitable for the mosquito that spreads the virus. But scientists say even if less active than in warmer months, the mosquito, Aedes aegypti, never actually disappears.
German sports officials have sent a brochure to teams, coaches and medical staff containing information on the virus and basic precautionary measures. A specialist on infections is due to brief the German team’s medical staff in April.
“We found out that what we can do at this very moment is prevention. This whole situation is very dynamic at the moment,” said Olympic Sport Confederation spokesman Michael Schirp. “The brochure we sent ends fittingly with the phrase that there is no need for panic,” he added.
Many leading male golfers are among those determined not to miss Rio, when their sport returns to the Olympics after an absence of more than a century.
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Nairobi, Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles, Matt Smith in Dubai, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago, Daniel Bases and Joshua Schneyer in New York, Martyn Herman in London, Paul Prada and Jeb Blount in Rio de Janeiro, Karolos Grohmann in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Grant McCool)
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