ANAHEIM, Calif. — As someone who has experienced Zika firsthand, Detroit Tigers pitcher Francisco Rodriguez would give this advice to any athletes traveling to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics: Do your homework.
Rodriguez, a 34-year-old native of Caracas, Venezuela, contracted the virus this past off-season and learned just how serious the illness can be. He was laid up for two weeks with severe body aches, joint pain, headaches and a myriad of other symptoms. Since the effects of the illness are even more devastating for fetuses, he advised any athletes contemplating participating in the Olympics to educate themselves and their family members.
The World Health Organization has classified Zika, a mosquito-transmitted illness that can cause the birth defect microcephaly and other developmental issues, as a "public health emergency of international concern" but recently ruled that canceling or changing the location of the 2016 Olympics would "not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus." The WHO's decision comes despite a recent plea from a collection of 150 health professionals to postpone the event.
"I wouldn't blame them," Rodriguez told ESPN.com of any athletes having second thoughts about competing. "If they have plans to have kids in the future, you've got to think about it. You have to be aware of that as well. You have to do some homework, some research about it."
For Rodriguez, who spends his off-season home in Venezuela, what began as something similar to a cold quickly devolved into something much worse. When the symptoms persisted, he knew he wasn't dealing with any garden-variety ailment.
"It wasn't a cold, trust me," he said. "It wasn't a cold. A cold, you have a sneeze, have a headache, take a couple Tylenol, and you're done. You don't have a cold for two weeks, you don't have a body ache for two weeks, you don't have headaches, throwing up, weaknesses for two weeks."
Rodriguez, who recently became only the sixth pitcher in major league baseball history to record 400 saves, had blood work performed to see whether he had Zika or chikungunya, a different mosquito-borne illness, which Tigers prospect Bruce Rondon contracted this off-season. The test determined it was Zika, and from there it was a slow recovery. Although Rodriguez was infected with the virus for only two weeks, the effects were far-reaching.
Rodriguez said it took two months before he ultimately felt like himself again, adding that the recovery affected him even after he got into spring training with his new club, although he was never considered contagious.
And Rodriguez said he realizes he was probably one of the lucky ones, especially considering the dire state of the economy and health care in Venezuela, where even wealthy residents have a difficult time getting access to medicine or experience extreme price-gouging.
Having seen the sort of pain and havoc the virus has wreaked in his home country, Rodriguez said he can understand the level of concern heading into the Olympics, with so many athletes, fans and spectators expected to descend on Rio. Latin and South American countries have been dealing with the crisis for six months, but tourists and athletes arriving from other parts of the world might be putting themselves at risk when there are no reported incidents back home.
"It's something people have to be careful with and worry about," Rodriguez said. "There's no vaccine for it. It's not like you take a shot and [improve] ... It could be global."