30 Jan 2016

Olympics or a baby - athletes told to decide

7:35 am on 30 January 2016

The risk of the zika virus means female athletes travelling to the Olympics will have to decide whether they are willing to delay getting pregnant, a former Olympian says.

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There is no known vaccine or treatment for zika, which is carried by mosquitoes. Photo: AFP

Female athletes travelling to the Rio Olympics face a difficult decision if they are planning to have children, former Olympian Barbara Kendall says.

The zika virus, which is linked to severe birth defects in thousands of babies in Brazil is spreading "explosively", the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

President Dilma Rousseff said the country was losing the battle against zika, and she has called for a national effort to eradicate the mosquitos that carry it.

She said without a vaccine, the only thing that could be done was to fight the mosquito.

The virus has been linked to thousands of babies being born in Brazil with microcephaly; they have abnormally small heads and brains that have not developed properly.

Meanwhile, Ecuador's government has confirmed more than 20 cases of the virus and suspects there are scores more. It has promised to intensify prevention campaigns in high-risk areas.

The cases were detected in six provinces, including the Galapagos Islands. There have so far been no reports of pregnant women with symptoms of the virus in Ecuador.

In New Zealand, the Ministry of Health is advising women who are pregnant, or plan to become pregnant, to take extra care to avoid exposure to the virus.

Barbara Kendall

Barbara Kendall Photo: AFP

The New Zealand Olympic Committee is advising all athletes who are pregnant or hoping to get pregnant in the near future not to travel to the games in Brazil in August.

Five-time Olympian Barbara Kendall had two children while she was still competing at an Olympic level.

She told Checkpoint athletes typically trained for about eight years before going to the Olympics.

"It's a big decision, but I think if you're a smart person you'd go 'ok, I'm going to go to the Olympic games, I've worked my life for this, I'm going to do it', tick that box and then look at starting a family once you're in the all-clear."

About 400 athletes and officials are expected to go to the games as part of the New Zealand team.

Committee spokesperson Ashley Abbott said it would be a "difficult decision" to pull out but it would support anyone that decided to do so.

"They [the committee's medical team] right now are looking at what preventative strategies could be put in place to help athletes avoid getting bitten full stop. It may well include insect repellent and we will see if mosquito nets will be useful."

No one had pulled out yet but the committee would be talking to all of the athletes over the coming month.

The organising committee in Rio de Janeiro was already fumigating venues, she added.

New Zealand will have female athletes in most sports in Rio, and teams to have qualified so far include those for hockey, sevens, rowing and football.

International Olympic Committee head, Thomas Bach, said steps were being taken to protect this year's Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The IOC will issue guidelines later on Friday for athletes and visitors taking part in the games.

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Rio de Janeiro Photo: AFP/FILE

Nine cases of zika in New Zealand

Ministry for Primary Industries said the two species of mosquito that carry the zika virus were not in New Zealand.

MPI's manager of detection technology Brett Hickman said the virus needed the mosquitoes as a vector and without them zika did not pose the same risk as in South America or parts of the Pacific.

New Zealand's borders have some of the most thorough surveillance procedures which have been developed with the help of entomologists, he said.

Some imported items, such as used tyres, received mandatory fumigation.

Meanwhile, nine people who arrived in New Zealand from the South Pacific in the past month have been recorded as having the zika virus.

Four of the travellers had been in Tonga, four in Samoa and one case was not specified.

Four of those found to have the disease in New Zealand were women. In two of those cases, the potential for any pregnancy had been ruled out and further tests were under way for the other two.

One of the travellers, a 47-year-old Waikato man, had been admitted to Waikato Hospital with symptoms that indicated Guillain-Barre, a condition that could cause paralysis but from which most patients made a full recovery. He was in a stable condition.

All of the other eight individuals had recovered.

Ministry of Health chief medical officer Dr Don Mackie said in a statement the cases should be seen in the context of a large number of travellers in the region.

In 2014, there were 57 zika "notifications"; last year, there were six.

"We will be providing advice to incoming travellers and the ministry is updating its information for health professionals. There remains robust mosquito surveillance and monitoring at our borders."

Dr Mackie said, as an additional precaution, the ministry was recommending women returning from zika-infected areas who might wish to become pregnant should use an effective contraceptive for a period of three weeks after their return.

The Ministry of Health has included Tonga and Samoa as areas of active transmission for the disease, which has no known vaccine or treatment.

Plea for fair treatment for abortions

A Brazilian group of lawyers, activists and scientists is to ask the country's supreme court to allow abortions for women with the virus.

Abortions are illegal in Brazil, except in health emergencies or cases of rape or, since 2012, another brain condition known as anencephaly.

The new petition is to be delivered to the supreme court in two months' time.

Brazilian women "should not be penalised for the consequences of flawed policies", it's understood the petition says.

A physiotherapist in Brazil holds a baby suffering from microcephalia.

A physiotherapist in Brazil holds a baby suffering from microcephalia. Photo: AFP

Brazil is the country worst affected by the zika outbreak, with 270 cases of microcephaly confirmed by the health ministry and 3448 being investigated.

Debora Diniz, a law professor at Brasilia University, said the disease disproportionately affected the poor.

"What we have at this moment is a group of women who are in fear of getting pregnant and do not know what will happen during the pregnancy," she said.

"It is important to remember, when we talk about abortion and reproductive rights in general, that we have a social class split in Brazil - wealthy women will access safe abortion, legal or illegal, and poor women will go to the illegal market or continue to be pregnant."

Professor Diniz has called for better access to prenatal care and earlier screening for diseases such as microcephaly.

She said: "This is not only an abortion case, this is a women's rights case."

WHO said the mosquito-borne virus has spread explosively through 23 countries in the Americas.

It has called an emergency meeting on Monday.

Vaccine being developed

Most people do not develop symptoms of the zika virus but may pass the virus on to their children. There is no known cure or vaccine. The US said it hoped to begin human vaccine trials by the end of 2016.

Officials from the US National Institute of Health (NIH) said they had two potential zika vaccines in development. One that is based on an experimental West Nile vaccine could be repurposed for zika and enter clinical trials by the end of 2016, the NIH said.

Zika was first detected in Uganda in 1947, but has never caused an outbreak on this scale. Brazil reported the first cases of zika in South America in May 2015.

WHO officials said between 500,000 and 1.5 million people had been infected in Brazil, and the virus has since spread to more than 20 countries in the region.

-RNZ / BBC

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