Sinead Jennings happy to compete despite Zika fears
Medical doctor says she will monitor developments carefully over next few months
Ireland’s Claire Lambe and Sinead Jennings, who have qualified for the Olympic Games in Rio in the lightweight women’s double sculls. Photograph: Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images
Differing views on the Zika virus, particularly from female athletes, threaten to throw competitor participation at the Rio Olympic Games into chaos.
While the coach of British gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill says she should consider whether to defend her Olympic heptathlon title because of the viral threat and USA goal keeper Hope Solo says she would not go to Rio, Irish rower Sinead Jennings believes the risk of infection is currently low.
Jennings, who has qualified for Rio with Claire Lambe in the lightweight double sculls, is also a medical doctor and believes that the risk to healthy non-pregnant athletes from the insect-borne virus is not yet serious.
Currently training in Spain, Jennings said that she would monitor developments carefully over the coming months but that she planned on travelling to Rio as things stand.
“It is early days and maybe if more information emerges later. From the information coming out now I’ve no concerns. Obviously pregnant women are most affected by it.
“From both a doctor and athlete’s point of view, I feel that the risk is low unless pregnant and a very high risk if pregnant. Possibly spectators or supporters and support staff for the teams who are pregnant should consider whether to go.
“But we’d be going now, although, I’ll definitely monitor it over the coming months and get advice from the Institute of Sport and the Olympic Council. At the moment, there is no information to say that we should not go.”
Toni Minichiello, who coached Ennis-Hill to London 2012 gold, said the British camp should be moved out of Rio and that he would not be encouraging athletes to go into areas where people have been infected. The Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitos and is widespread in Brazil, has been linked to devastating birth defects and in recent weeks has been causing international alarm after spreading beyond the Americas.
That has prompted further concern among organisers, with water pollution issues and spiralling costs already hanging over them. Britain confirmed four cases of the virus yesterday, while China confirmed its first case.
The USA’s star goalkeeper Solo says the Zika virus would keep her away from the Olympics if she had to decide now.
“If I had to make the choice today, I wouldn’t go,” Solo said to the Sports Illustrated website. “I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child.
“I don’t know when that day will come for [husband] Jerramy [Stevens] and me, but I personally reserve my right to have a healthy baby. No athlete competing in Rio should be faced with this dilemma.
“Female professional athletes already face many different considerations and have to make choices that male professional athletes don’t.
“We accept these particular choices as part of being a woman, but I do not accept being forced into making the decision between competing for my country and sacrificing the potential health of a child, or staying home and giving up my dreams and goals as an athlete.
“Competing in the Olympics should be a safe environment for every athlete. Female athletes should not be forced to make a decision that could sacrifice the health of a child.”
The Zika virus is carried by Aedes mosquitoes and in recent weeks it has rapidly spread in the Caribbean, Central and South America.
The Department of Foreign Affairs recommend that pregnant women should consider postponing travelling to infected areas.
According to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, the Zika infection usually causes a mild illness that typically lasts between two to seven days.
Around 80 per cent of those who become infected have no symptoms, although infection has been strongly linked with a serious birth condition called microcephaly, which means a baby is born with an unusually small head.
In these cases, the baby’s brain may not have formed properly during pregnancy.
Cases of a neurological illness (called Guillain-Barré Syndrome) possibly caused by the Zika virus infection are also being studied.
The Olympic Council of Ireland recommends that individuals adopt the latest Government advice.
A more forthright United States Olympic Committee told sports federations this week that athletes and staff concerned for their health should consider not going to the Games.
Belo Horizonte, a city in south east Brazil, declared a state of emergency in December following an infestation of mosquitoes, which can transmit Zika.