Photo Credit: James Gathany, CDC

Athletes and sports fans hoping to attend the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this August may be faced with a terrible dilemma. They will have to decide if a quest for a medal or the opportunity to cheer their favorite athlete is worth the potential health risk posed by the Zika virus that has been plaguing Brazil since April 2015.

Zika is contracted when a female Aedes aegypti mosquito carrying the virus bites a victim. The insects that thrive in tropical climates and are distinguishable by white markings on their legs are also responsible for afflicting people with the dengue virus. Though the existence of Zika virus has been known since 1952, it was considered relatively harmless. That's because most people experience no symptoms. Those that do suffer experience curable flu-like symptoms like mild fever aching joints and skin rashes that last for between 2-7 days.

However, things changed in September 2015 after Brazilian health authorities began receiving reports of a sharp rise in the incidence of microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby's head is much smaller than expected. Depending on the severity of the condition, this can cause a range of problems from developmental delays to hearing loss, impaired vision and even intellectual disability.

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Though researchers are still not entirely sure that the Zika virus is responsible for the dramatic increase in the number of Brazilian children being born with microcephaly, the evidence is compelling. According to the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the women whose babies were born with the disorder had visited a Zika virus afflicted area while pregnant. As a result on Friday, January 16, 2016, the American agency issued a travel advisory warning recommending that women who are currently pregnant should avoid going to areas afflicted by the Zika virus.

While this advice would certainly not apply to athletes, the United States Olympic Committee did issue a statement in early February informing competitors concerned about the virus to reconsider attending the games. That's because though the Zika virus is currently believed to last in the blood stream for just six days, nobody knows if the virus has a longer-term impact.

So far, the responses have been mixed. Some feel it is worth the risk given how hard they have been training for the past three years. Others are not certain. U.S. Women's soccer star, Hope Solo, has indicated that if she had to make the decision today, she would not go. However, like most athletes, Solo will continue to assess the situation before making a final determination.

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Meanwhile, the Brazilian authorities are doing everything they can to eradicate the virus. They are trying to curb the population growth of the deadly mosquitoes by spraying the small pools and moist areas that the mosquitoes thrive in with pesticide. The officials have also collaborated with British biotech firm Oxitec, to release 25 million genetically-modified mosquitoes. Called OX513A, they are all male and, therefore, unable to spread the virus since it is only the female mosquitoes that bite. A similar endeavor to control the spread of dengue-carrying mosquitos in the Brazilian city of Piracicaba in 2010 proved to be extremely useful, and officials are hoping it will help here as well.

Also helpful is the fact that the games will be taking place in August when the weather is cooler and drier and therefore not as conducive for the mosquitoes. Athletes and fans will also be encouraged to cover their arms and legs as much as possible and apply insect repellent.

How The Zika Virus Spread. Photo Credit: The

This is not the first time that a disease outbreak has hampered the Olympic games. Sixty-five people came down with the Norovirus at the 2006 FIFA World Cup soccer competitions, while eighty-five attendees contracted measles at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, even fans gathering to watch soccer on the television in public areas in Liberia had to take precautions against catching the disease. Hopefully, the Zika virus will be contained before it crushes the dreams of all the athletes that have been training hard for the last three years.