Olympics: Kenya could pull out owing to Zika concerns but USOC won't stop athletes competing

The Velodrome at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Velodrome at the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.PHOTO: AFP

ATHENS/LOS ANGELES (REUTERS, AFP) - Kenya could pull out of this year's Rio Olympics because of concerns over the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, the head of Kenya's Olympics committee said on Tuesday.

Kenya boasts some of the best middle- and long-distance runners in the world and the East African nation topped the medal table at the 2015 World Athletics Championships.

"Obviously, we are not going to risk taking Kenyans there if this Zika virus reaches epidemic levels," Kipchoge Keino told Reuters.

On Monday, The United States Olympic Committee had refuted an "inaccurate" report that it had advised American athletes to reconsider competing in the Rio Games because of Zika fears.

"The reports that the USOC has advised US athletes to reconsider competing in Rio due to the Zika virus are 100 per cent inaccurate," USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in a statement.

"Team USA looks forward to the Games and we did not, would not and will not prevent athletes from competing for their country should they qualify."

Sandusky said the USOC had held internal discussions with American sports leaders about the potential risks that the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had identified with travel to Zika-infested areas.

The primarily mosquito-borne illness has surged through Latin America.

According to the Pan American Health Organisation, at least 26 countries on the continent have already been affected by Zika.

In most people, it causes mild symptoms, but it has been linked to a rapid rise in the number of children born with microcephaly - abnormally small heads and brains.

In at least one instance, reported in Dallas, Texas, the disease may have been transmitted sexually.

Brazil, where the Rio Games begin in August, is the hardest-hit country to date, and has warned pregnant women not to travel there.

However, Games organisers said this month that by the time the Olympics start on Aug 5, the main mosquito season will be over and they don't expect the illness to affect the sporting extravaganza.

Brazilian sports minister George Hilton reiterated that position on Monday in remarks to the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo, saying his government is contacting sports federations to clarify that the mosquito population will be reduced in Rio in August.

"Zika is a public health problem worldwide, but precisely because of the climate characteristics, is not an Olympic issue," he said.