Why male athletes are pulling out of the Olympics

Story highlights

  • Zika virus lives in semen for an unknown period of time
  • A man infected with Zika could potentially infect his sexual partner
  • And he could put unborn baby at risk for a birth defect, experts say

(CNN)Watching the news, Dr. William Schaffner wanted to reach into his television set and give soccer player Hope Solo this message: "You have it all backward!"

He heard that Solo said she wouldn't compete at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil if the games were held today because she worried she might contract the Zika virus and, at some point, give birth to a child with health problems.
"I do not accept being forced into making the decision between competing for my country and sacrificing the potential health of a child, or staying home and giving up my dreams and goals as an athlete," Solo told Sports Illustrated.
    Ex-NFL player Jerramy Stevens congratulates his wife, soccer star Hope Solo, last year.
    The mosquito-borne virus has prompted worldwide concern because of a link to a birth defect and its rapid spread, including in South America.
    "I wanted to tell her she's looking at the wrong side of the coin," said Schaffner, a professor at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a member of an advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It's not yourself you should be so worried about -- it's your husband!"
    He explained that as long as Solo isn't pregnant when she's in Brazil, or doesn't get pregnant shortly afterward, she doesn't run the risk of a mosquito bite leading to Zika in a baby.
    But Zika has been found in the semen of infected men -- and it's unknown how long it stays there and over what period of time a man can transmit the virus through sex.
    Other infectious disease experts agree: Reproductively speaking, men -- not women -- have the most reason for concern after visiting a country with a large Zika outbreak.

    Zika and future dads

    If a man were to get Zika through a mosquito bite, he could potentially infect his sexual partner and put their unborn baby at risk for microcephaly, a devastating neurological birth defect linked to the virus.
    And since it's unclear how long Zika lasts in semen, and there's no commercial test available, it's not known how long a man needs to worry about possibly infecting his partner -- and his baby.
    "The fellas clearly have an ongoing problem," Schaffner said.
    The CDC recommends that men who've been diagnosed with Zika, or have had symptoms of the virus, to use condoms or abstain from sex for at least six months after symptoms begin.
    The agency directs men who have not had symptoms but did travel to an area with Zika to use condoms or not have sex for at least eight weeks after the man returns.