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Let's Clear Up Some Facts About the Zika Virus for Olympians

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The U.S. women's national soccer team is about to take on Costa Rica in the first game of the qualifying tournament that will decide their Olympics fate. But according to goalie Hope Solo, there's another factor that will determine whether she'll be heading to Rio this summer: Zika. More specifically, misinformation about how the virus works.

"If I had to make the choice today, I wouldn't go [to the Olympics]," Solo told Sports Illustrated when asked, explaining she feels uncomfortable about the Zika situation in Brazil. Another unidentified U.S. women's national team player also expressed concerns, as have other Olympic hopefuls.

Yes, the situation is certainly a grave one: The mosquito-borne virus has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization and is believed to cause microcephaly— a rare birth defect that causes incomplete brain development. Other potential Zika-caused birth defects, including an abnormality that can lead to blindness, continue to pop up. (For the full scoop, check out 7 Things You Should Know About the Zika Virus.)

"I would never take the risk of having an unhealthy child," Solo told Sports Illustrated. "I don't know when that day will come for [husband] Jerramy 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."

She goes on to say: "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, male and female alike. Female athletes should not be forced to make a decision that could sacrifice the health of a child."

What she's saying isn't wrong: Of course, female athletes shouldn't be forced to make a decision that could sacrifice the health of their future children. However, according to the CDC and infectious disease experts, Zika can only cause birth defects in the children of women who are currently pregnant and become infected with the virus, or who are trying to get pregnant immediately afterwards.

"If I were a female athlete, the only concern I would have is: What are the odds I might get pregnant while I have the Zika virus?" says Jorge P. Parada, M.D., the medical director of the Loyola University Medical System Infection Control Program in Chicago and a medical advisor to Pest World. As long as a female athlete isn't pregnant at the time of her event (pretty unlikely!) and has no intention of getting pregnant immediately (and is using some form of birth control) there is nothing to worry about, Parada says.

Given the current information, the CDC recommends pregnant women (in any trimester) consider postponing travel to 14 countries, including Brazil and Mexico, where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. If they must travel, pregnant women are advised to follow strict steps to avoid mosquito bites. The CDC recommends that women who are trying to become pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant consult with their doctor before traveling to these areas, and to also follow strict steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip.

And, after a new report that it's possible to transmit Zika sexually (both male-to-female and vice versa), the CDC issued new recommendations urging men who have a pregnant partner and live in or have traveled to an area of active Zika virus transmission to either abstain from sexual activity or always use condoms (during any kind of sexual intercourse) to prevent transmitting the virus to their pregnant partner. (Here are five condoms for better sex.)

As for women who aren't pregnant? "Zika virus infection does not pose a risk of birth defects for future pregnancies," says the CDC. They explain that the virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for only a few days to a week, and will not cause infections in an infant that's conceived after the virus is cleared from the blood.

"Zika has been transmitted for a long, long time in other countries before this outbreak in Brazil, and we haven't seen ongoing continued microcephaly in all the women in Africa who previously had the virus. There is no evidence that says somebody who caught Zika previously would, in a subsequent pregnancy, be at risk," Parada seconds. In terms of his advice for women like Solo who are concerned about having a healthy baby down the road after competing in Rio? "If it was my sister or my wife, I would not be worried for them."

Also worth noting, according to the CDC, only about 1 in 5 people infected with the virus will actually get sick from it. Its entire history has been that of a very benign infection–for those who do become sick, the illness is usually mild and will clear up on its own in about a week after some rest and fluids, with almost no one ever needing to go to the hospital, Parada explains.

All in all the current evidence is pretty clear: Zika shouldn't be the primary factor holding Solo (or any non-pregnant athlete for that matter) back from the #RoadToRio. Let's win this, ladies.

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