Federal health officials weighed in today on the potential risks athletes may face from the Zika virus when attending the Olympics in Brazil, as U.S. Olympic Committee officials noted they are closely watching the outbreak.
U.S. Olympic Committee officials told ABC News that the committee cannot force athletes to go to the games and that it is not a health agency, so it is focusing on alerting athletes to travel advisories from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed concerns today about Olympic athletes competing in the middle of an ongoing outbreak in Brazil.
"It's very difficult to give advice to people who devoted the last X number of years training for that," he said during a news conference. "What we can do, and the CDC can do, is give them the facts. ... As an infection, Zika is a relatively mild. ... As an infection, it isn't serious."
"The issue we are focusing on is the issue of pregnant women," Fauci said.
The current Zika virus outbreak has been rapidly spreading through the Americas, but was first detected in Brazil last May. The virus usually results in mild symptoms including fever, fatigue and rash, that resolve in a week. However, it has been associated with a birth defect called microcephaly, which is characterized by an abnormally small brain and head.
"We are closely monitoring the situation through the CDC and have ongoing contact with the International Olympic Committee, the organizing officials in Rio, the World Health Organization and infectious disease specialists with expertise in tropical diseases, including the Zika virus," USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky told ABC News in an email. "Additionally, we’re taking steps to ensure that our delegation and those affiliated with Team USA are aware of the CDC’s recommendations regarding travel to Brazil."
The CDC has issued travel advisories focused on protecting pregnant women or women who may become pregnant. The agency advises all pregnant women to avoid traveling to areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission. Additionally, since the virus can be spread through sexual contact, they are also advising men who have been in countries with ongoing ZIka transmission to abstain from sex with a pregnant partner or to use barrier contraception.
Sandusky also said that a report earlier today the USOC has advised U.S. athletes to reconsider competing in Rio due to the Zika virus "are 100 percent inaccurate."
"Team USA looks forward to the games, and we did not, would not and will not prevent athletes from competing for their country should they qualify. The inaccurate report cited an internal discussion with U.S. sports leaders pertaining to employees and the potential risks that the CDC has identified with travel to Zika-infected areas," Sandusky said in a statement.
Some athletes have expressed concern about the virus. George Boville, an Olympic bronze medalist swimmer for Trinidad and Tobago in the 200 meter individual medley and two-time world champion, told ABC News last week that he was worried about going to Brazil, where the outbreak of the Zika virus in the Americas started.
"It is definitely a concern," he told ABC News via Twitter. By the time of the Olympic games, "it should be rampant."
The Australian Olympic Committee has also said it is advising all athletes to wear long sleeves and that any team member who is "pregnant at the time of the Games need to consider the risks very carefully before deciding whether to proceed with travel to Brazil."
American wrestler Adeline Grey told reporters at a test event on Jan. 31 at Rio's Olympic Park that she didn't plan to skip the games, but that if she were pregnant she would reconsider participating.
"If I was planning to have a child next month, I would be extremely uneasy about this," Gray said, according to the Associated Press. "Maybe that would have changed my decision" to come to Rio for the test event.