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Emory scientist says Zika risks in Rio Olympics low, as four top golfers drop out

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to report Monday’s announcement that  Jordan Speith will not play in the Rio Olympics.

By David Pendered

A day before U.S. golfer Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 2 in the world, said he won’t play in the Rio Olympics because of concerns about the Zika virus, an Emory University scientist said risk of the disease is low during the games.

Uriel Kitron

Uriel Kitron

“The risk of Zika infection in Rio during the Olympics is very low,” Uriel Kitron, chair of Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and an expert on mosquito-borne diseases, said in a report posted July 7 on Emory’s eScienceCommons.com.

Kitron continued: “But if you are pregnant, or are thinking of getting pregnant right now as part of a couple, then you may want to consider even this low risk of transmission, given the potential serious complications.”

That “low risk” has prompted three of the world’s top four golfers to say they’re skipping the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. More could drop out.

U.S. golfer Jordan Speith, No. 3 in the World Golf Ranking, was the last of the top four golfers intending to play in Rio. On Monday, cbssports.com reported an annoucement that Speith will not play in Rio, citing “health issues,” which CBS said, “equates to the Zika virus.

Jason Day, an Australian now ranked No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking, said Zika concerns will keep him away from Rio. The same with Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, World No. 4.

Golfers are thought to be more at risk of contracting the virus because they’re outside for long periods of time. The long periods of exposure could raise their chances of being bitten by a mosquito carrying the Zika virus, which causes mild reaction in some and has been linked to babies born with small heads.

However, Kitron reminds that it’s winter in Rio, meaning that fewer mosquitoes are around to transmit the virus. Temperatures usually range from daytime highs in the mid 70 to evening lows in the mid 60s, according to a forecast by chicagoweathercenter.com. Kitron observed:

  • “For one thing, August is the winter season in Rio, when mosquito populations are at their lowest. And the areas where the athletes will be staying and competing are well-maintained, making Olympic visitors even less likely to encounter a mosquito.

Kitron was conducting research in Brazil on mosquito-borne diseases when the Zika outbreak was noted. Kitron and his Brazilian colleagues expanded their work to include Zika and their epidemiological studies were among the first to relate the outbreak and a spike in cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome and babies born with heads that are smaller than normal, according to the report on eScienceCommons.com.

Kitron observed that Zika is not the threat in Brazil it was in 2015:

Jason Day

Jason Day, the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer, said he won’t play in the Rio Olympics because of concerns over the Zika virus. Credit: heavy.com

  • “The rates of Zika infection in Brazil have gone down drastically since last year, probably because the population now has herd immunity, so that further lowers the risk of transmission. Brazil is no longer the ‘hot spot’ of the Zika pandemic. The horse has already left the barn as Zika has moved throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Kitron’s comments no doubt will factor into decisions by other golfers, male and female, on whether to compete in the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

These games are especially significant. They mark the return of golf to the Olympics for the first time since the 1904 games in St. Louis. The sport’s only other appearance in the games was in Paris in 1900, according to rio2016.com.

As Johnson said when he became the first U.S. golfer to drop out. Golfweek.com published the following comment on July 8:

  • “As an athlete, I can think of no greater honor than representing the United States in the Olympic Games. However, after much careful consideration and discussion with both my family and my team, I have made the decision to withdraw from the 2016 Olympic Games.
  • “This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored. Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk. I believe I am making the right decision for me and most importantly, my family.”
David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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  1. Burroughston Broch July 11, 2016 9:58 am

    Will Kitron be in Brazil during the Olympics? Zika is just one of many reasons not to attend.Report

  2. Georges Hoffmann July 12, 2016 11:36 am

    The threat of the Zika virus may be an “good reason” for these young golfers not to go to Rio. Some of them are starting a family, others may think about it. Nevertheless, I think that it is a “convenient” reason, because essentially for golfers the Olympics do not represent the highest honor in their career. For sports like track & field, swimming, gymnastics, judo and others, the Olympics are THE competition to qualify for and the medals earned there are THE badge of honor. Not so for golf or tennis!

    This week is The British Open (The Open for the purists!) and winning the Claret Jug would be a much sweeter trophy than a gold medal in Rio. When you mention Serena Williams you immediately remember that she tied Stefi Graf for the most major wins … but do you remember that she actually won four gold medals at the Olympics ?? (three in double and one in single!). By all account she is an Olympic star, but for tennis (as for golf) that is not the measure of greatness.Report

  3. Burroughston Broch July 13, 2016 11:41 pm

    Today (13 July) senior CDC officials testified before a Senate hearing that 40 countries and territories in the Western Hemisphere are threatened by Zika, with Florida, Puerto Rico, and Brazil in the crosshairs. There are 282 confirmed cases in Florida.
    I hold CDC’s opinion of higher value than the professor’s, unless he can give us a good reason we should think otherwise.Report


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