Olympians Weigh Threat of Zika Virus for 2016 Games

By Michael Hill

Eighteen-year-old Shakur Stevenson has won countless bouts but he’s never faced an opponent like the Aedes aegypti mosquito spreading the Zika virus and suspected of causing babies born with small heads and underdeveloped brains on at least three continents. The outbreak’s epicenter is Brazil, home to the 2016 Summer Games.

“It would take a thousand mosquitoes to stop him, man because this has been his lifelong dream,” said New Jersey Boxing Hall of Famer Wali “Willie” Moses.

Moses is Stevenson’s grandfather and trainer who taught the 123-pound, oldest of nine children boxer how to fight.

Moses co-founded Elite Heat Boxing Gym, which once boasted nine championships at the same time. He’s going to Rio with the hope of collecting even more for the mantle but has some concerns.

“It is a scare because you know, you never know. It’s highly contagious, so they say, and we wouldn’t want any of the athletes to get infected,” Moses said.

Brazil hopes to deliver a knock-out blow by deploying 220,000 troops to kill the mosquito’s larva and get rid of standing water while the World Health Organization has declared an international health emergency and the Olympic Committee monitors the outbreak.

Englewood Hospital and Medical Center’s Ashwin Jathavedam says personal protection is paramount.

“Using mosquito repellent such as DEET, covering yourself up best you can. The mosquito that transmits it is notorious for biting during the day,” Jathavedam said.

But, a game changer came from Dallas where doctors confirmed the first known transmission by sexual contact in the U.S.

“We’re working on a statement right now that I think it is important for people to understand the risks, to educate themselves about the Zika virus so that they can make an educated and informed decision about what risks they’re willing to put themselves at,” said Glenn Merry, CEO of USRowing, who is going to Rio with a big concern. “Standing water is an issue for mosquitoes. Our competition venue is a lake with a lot of water and potential for risk of exposure is increased.”

Another concern for the Olympic boxers: no headgear for these games, which means more facial cuts, more bleeding, more opportunity for the Zika-causing mosquito to attack.

“That makes it even more of a risk,” Moses said.

Moses says his family has yet to decide how many relatives are going to Rio to watch young Stevenson go for gold, but he says in the meantime they’re paying very close attention to Brazil and the Zika virus outbreak.