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U.S. Olympic Committee to hire infectious disease specialists over Zika concerns

In this Jan. 29, 2016 photo, youth play on a street with stagnate floodwater in the Parque Sao Bento shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Brazil's first case of Zika, a virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and subsequently spread to parts of Asia, was recorded in the middle of last year. Brazil is in the midst of a Zika outbreak and authorities say they have also detected a spike in cases of microcephaly in newborn children, but the link between Zika and microcephaly is as yet unproven. Researchers don't know exactly how the virus made the jump, but the two theories that hold most currency suggest it may have arrived with one or more infected tourists visiting the country for the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament or an international canoeing competition here the same year. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

In this Jan. 29, 2016 photo, youth play on a street with stagnate floodwater in the Parque Sao Bento shantytown in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Brazil's first case of Zika, a virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and subsequently spread to parts of Asia, was recorded in the middle of last year. Brazil is in the midst of a Zika outbreak and authorities say they have also detected a spike in cases of microcephaly in newborn children, but the link between Zika and microcephaly is as yet unproven. Researchers don't know exactly how the virus made the jump, but the two theories that hold most currency suggest it may have arrived with one or more infected tourists visiting the country for the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament or an international canoeing competition here the same year. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

While goalkeeper Hope Solo and other members of the U.S. women's national soccer team, as well as other American athletes vying to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, began expressing concern recently over that country's struggle with the Zika virus, the U.S. Olympic Committee was apparently listening.

The organization announced that it will hire two infectious disease specialists to advise potential Olympians who are worried about the Zika outbreak, and the group's CEO admitted that Solo was part of the reason why.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun sent a letter Wednesday to all possible Olympians, acknowledging the growing worries over the virus.

"I know that the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil is of concern to many of you," Blackmun wrote. "I want to emphasize that it is to us, as well, and that your well-being in Rio this summer is our highest priority."

The letter goes on to spell out much of the information that's already been relayed by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The virus is spread by mosquitoes. About 20 percent of those infected display mild symptoms, including body aches and rash. But pregnant women and those considering getting pregnant have greater reason for concern because the virus can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by an abnormally small head.

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In an interview with Sports Illustrated earlier this week, Solo said that if the Olympics were being held now, she wouldn't go.

Blackmun told the Associated Press that Solo's comments "made us realize we need to provide concise and accurate info for our athletes."

She reiterated those comments following the U.S. team's 5-0 victory over Costa Rica on Wednesday night to open the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament.

"All I can do is speak for myself. If the Olympics were today, I would not go," she said. "Fortunately, the Olympics are six months away. So, I believe we have some time to get our doubts and questions answered."

At least one of the two infectious disease specialists will be a woman, Blackmun said.

In addition to those two hires, the USOC will post updates to its website at USOC.org/RioTravelUpdates.

The USOC's decision to hire the specialists was first reported by USA Today.

The letter, addressed to prospective members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic delegation, says "no matter how much we prepare ... there will always be risk associated with international competition. Each country, each venue and each discipline will present different risks and require different mitigation strategies."

Blackmun said the USOC is monitoring the frequent updates regarding Zika. The letter makes note that "rapid testing to determine if an individual is infected is expected in the near future."

"First and foremost, we want to make sure our athletes have accurate information because they're concerned," Blackmun said. "Based on what we know now, the primary threat is to unborn children."

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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