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expert reaction to media reports that golf player Rory Mcllroy has pulled out of the 2016 Olympic Games due to fears over the Zika outbreak

The golfer Rory McIlroy has pulled out of the Olympics in Brazil because of concerns around the adverse health impacts of the ongoing Zika outbreak.

All our previous output on this subject can be seen here. The SMC also produced a Factsheet on Zika.


Prof. Jimmy Whitworth, Professor of International Public Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:

“Rory Mcllroy has made a personal decision not to attend the Rio Olympics. That is as it should be, we do not know his personal circumstances and we should respect his decision.

“Golf courses would not be particularly dangerous places for getting infected with Zika. The mosquitos involved in transmitting the infection live around houses and rarely fly more than 50 metres from the breeding sites.

“For most people Zika virus causes a mild illness, often not even clinically apparent. If you do become ill you will be fully recovered in a week or so. Rarely complications such as Guillain Barre syndrome may occur, but we should put this into perspective. This syndrome is as common or commoner after ordinary gut infections, such as Campylobacter, which are likely to be more common in Rio than Zika anyway. The most credible estimates suggest no more than 10-20 infections with Zika among the half a million athletes and visitors going to Brazil for the Olympics.

“For couples wanting to get pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant there is a different balance of risks because of the dangers of microcephaly and congenital Zika syndrome. There are also now reports of a small number of cases being transmitted sexually.

“If a woman is pregnant, medical advice would be not to travel to Rio. If she is thinking of becoming pregnant, then she and her partner should delay conception for two months after returning and use barrier methods of protection. In the unlikely event of a woman or her partner of getting infected with Zika, they should delay pregnancy for six months, by which time all traces of Zika infection will have been cleared from the body.

“It’s important all travellers follow public health advice before travelling and while abroad.”


Dr Derek Gatherer, Lecturer in the Division of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Lancaster University, said:

“Zika is a risk to pregnant women and to men and women who are planning pregnancy.  Another, much smaller, risk group is those who have had previous attacks of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) or who have been told by their doctors that they are at risk of GBS.  If Mr McIlroy is contemplating becoming a father within a year or so, then it is a perfectly reasonable precaution to stay away from regions of active Zika transmission. On the other hand, if he is not going to become a father any time soon, he has little to worry about, provided he takes the usual precautions for tropical countries, which for Brazil now includes no unprotected sex for at least 8 weeks after returning even for men who experience no symptoms.”


Prof. Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology, University of Nottingham, said:

“Obviously I don’t know the reasons for this decision, but it does strike me as being extreme. The chances of being infected by Zika virus is low, especially if you protect yourself from mosquito bites by covering up and using a good insect repellent.

“Pregnant women are advised not to travel to an affected area, and couples planning to have children in the very near future should also consider how the risk of Zika infection may affect their plans. But we must remember that most people infected don’t even show any symptoms and serious illness, although reported, seems to be a very rare event.”


Declared interests

Prof. Jimmy Whitworth: Jimmy Whitworth directs the ERAES programme (Enhancing Research Activity in Epidemic Situations) at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine which is supported by the Wellcome Trust to provide funding for urgent research during outbreaks.

Dr Derek Gatherer: No relevant conflict of interest

Prof. Jonathan Ball: No conflicts of interest

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