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Athletes weigh gold lust against Zika health fears

Gatlin, an Olympic sprinter, said he would could avoid but the lure of the Olympics themselves would likely prove too strong

Published: Updated:

As global health chiefs try to bring a Zika virus epidemic under control, aspiring Olympic athletes are weighing their lust for gold against health fears surrounding the mosquito-borne virus in Brazil.

Alarm has grown since the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday declared Zika an international health emergency that could infect as many as 4 million people in the Americas.

Zika is carried by mosquitoes, which transmit the virus to humans, while two cases in the United States suggest it may also be transmitted sexually.

Infographic: What is the Zika virus?
Infographic: What is the Zika virus?

The symptoms, which can include fever and skin rash, are typically mild. But health officials are most concerned by its potential link to microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.

Though the link hasn’t been proven yet, some athletes are rethinking their plans for the Rio Olympics, which get underway on Aug.5. Many others say they will take precautions but won’t let a low risk of infection blur their focus.

“The way I see it, it’s better to die for an Olympic gold than be scared and sit at home,” Indian shooting coach Ronak Pandit told Reuters in a phone call from his Mumbai home.

Pandit, a former shooter, now coaches his dentist wife Heena Sidhu, who last month earned her Rio place in air pistol shooting.

“The idea would be not to get bitten by mosquitoes,” she said. “Use mosquito repellent or nets, go out only in full-sleeve clothes, that kind of thing. I’m not changing my preparation. I’m not really thinking about it.”

Danish sailor Anne Marie Rindom is also unperturbed. “I’ll just buy some really strong insect repellent,” she said. “That’s how much I’ve thought about it. I’m not worried about it.”

Plenty are concerned, though.

“From what I have seen and heard, if you are a pregnant woman it is very dangerous,” U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin told Reuters.

Gatlin, an Olympic and World Champion sprinter, said he would likely avoid Brazil ahead of the Games but the lure of the Olympics themselves would likely prove too strong.

“At this point in time, if I had to take the risk about the virus, I am going to take it,” he said. “I am trying to capture my victory and my glory at the Olympics. Hopefully the Zika virus will be more contained by August.”

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