- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - Reese Hoffa is a big fellow. He’s 310 pounds and can toss a 16-pound shot put over 70 feet. That earned the Athens resident a bronze metal in the last Olympics, and he’s training hard for this year’s summer games in Rio.

One thing worries him - a mosquito, particularly one carrying the Zika virus. Brazil is the epicenter of the Zika outbreak. Hoffa and his wife, Renata, are trying to have a baby, and they’re well aware that Zika has been linked to babies born with brain damage and small heads.

Consequently, Hoffa must make “a huge decision.” For now, he’s leaning towards competing in the Olympics, but that could change.

“I guess for right now I’m somewhat OK with (competing),” Hoffa said. “I’m hoping they come up with a solution before we’re down there.”

Zika has dominated news about the 2016 Summer Games. Distress seems to spread with every new case that makes its way to the United States, which has nearly 200, including six travel-related cases in Georgia.

Atlantans have a strong bond to the Olympics, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of the city hosting the international sporting event in 1996. Atlantans understand the massive logistics and high stakes of producing an extravaganza on the world stage. They also know what it is to have an unforeseen incident sully the games and take over the news.

In Atlanta, that was the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park. In Brazil, so far, it is Zika.

“I worry about this Zika,” said A.D. Frazier, who served as chief operations officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. “This thing is pervasive and unpredictable.”

Frazier suspects people may decide not to attend the games, unless the Brazilian government does a better job of eradicating the virus and convincing the world the games are safe.

“I haven’t heard any good news,” he said.

Brazil’s health officials say they are launching a “mega-operation” to rid the country of mosquito breeding sites and ensure the public is taking the right precautions.

Nonetheless, officials at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they believe Zika will still be around for the Olympics.

Gabrielle McMahan has heard enough to make her scared. The Atlanta bakery owner has been working two years to qualify as a volunteer for the Olympics, filling out questionnaires, undergoing interviews and even studying Portuguese.

“Then I started hearing things about Zika,” said McMahan, 28.

She found it disconcerting that health officials were still figuring out the disease. At first, she heard them say Zika could only be contracted from mosquitoes, but later they said it can also be transmitted through sex and blood transfusion.

McMahan is among a number of metro Atlantans rethinking their travel plans to Brazil this summer in the face of the mysterious disease, which continues to be redefined by health officials. Others say they’ll head there armed to the teeth with mosquito repellent and netting.

For McMahan, the bombshell was the growing evidence linking Zika to microcephaly, a devastating birth defect that leaves newborns with small heads and underdeveloped brains. McMahan is not pregnant, but she worries she’ll contract Zika and it will stay in her system, the way Chickenpox lingers.

“I’m afraid if I get it, will it affect any future children that I have?” she said.

Atlanta journalist Aaron Bauer is in Brazil reporting on the build-up to the games. He’s written a half dozen pieces targeting Zika. Then Zika targeted him.

Weeks ago, he felt a sore throat coming on. Then came the headache behind the eyes, the chills, and the inability to either rise from bed or go to sleep. When the itchy rash broke out on his stomach, Bauer knew he had the Zika bug.

“I curled up with every blanket I have,” Bauer said.

Ed Hula had hired Bauer to head down to Rio. Hula is the editor of the Atlanta-based online news site called Around the Rings, which focuses on Olympics-related news. He believes the majority of people who planned to attend the games will do so.

“People are probably going regardless of Zika,” Hula said.

Still, Hula emphasized that the games are six months away, and that Zika remains an evolving issue. Health officials say that for the great majority of people, the illness is no worse than the flu. For now, Olympic ticket sales remain steady and ticket agents say they see little indication that the virus is dissuading people, he said.

“Much depends on what health professionals tell us in the next couple of months,” Hula said. “There’s so much we don’t know about Zika.”

For Bauer, 24, some Gatorade and Advil got him through the worst of Zika, which lasted two days.

Some worries, though, remain. He’s reading a lot about Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare condition that may be linked to Zika and can cause temporary paralysis and death.

His wife is set to visit him in Brazil in the coming months. She’s not pregnant, but the couple say they will probably want children down the line. They’re looking for more information about how long Zika stays in a person’s system.

For the record, the CDC says the Zika virus usually remains in a person’s blood for about a week. There is no evidence that suggests that a previous Zika infection poses a risk for future pregnancies, said CDC spokesman Tom Skinner.

“That’s what we’ve heard,” Bauer said. “But new information keeps coming out.”

He insists he is not overly concerned.

“I’m in a heightened sense of awareness.”

Zika or no Zika, Artagus Newell is going to the Olympics. The 40-year-old zoning administrator for Carroll County has been planning the trip for months; he’s already bought the $1,200 round-trip plane ticket.

Newell, you see, is among those people who have an Olympic-sized appreciation for the games. He can rattle off his favorite highlights, such as when sprinter Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith Joyner crushed the competition in 1988, or when gymnast Kerri Strug landed a vault on her injured ankle to an eruption of applause in 1996. It thrills him to see the entire world come together to celebrate its greatest athletes - the pomp and goodwill, the incredible human achievements, the international grandeur.

“I’m one of those people,” he said.

Back in 1996, Newell celebrated his 21st birthday at Centennial Olympic Park watching Ray Charles sing “Georgia On My Mind,” when the park reopened after the bombing. “It reaffirmed my faith in humanity,” he said.

So there’s no stopping him. He noted, however, he is researching the best insect repellents and clothing to ward off mosquitoes.

The CDC stands at the center of the battle against Zika. Here in Atlanta, the Clifton Road complex has activated its Emergency Operations Center, a sprawling NASA-like room where staffers track the disease on huge digital maps. The CDC is the national clearinghouse on Zika information, and officials regularly issue reports, updates and health news.

The federal health agency has also deployed a team of 16 people, several from Atlanta, to Brazil. The team is investigating the connection between Zika and the birth defects linked to microcephaly. They expect to issue their findings in April.

“There is believed to be a link, but it has not been definitely proven,” said Dave Daigle, a CDC team member and Stone Mountain resident.

Working out of a hot spot of Zika cases in northeast Brazil, the CDC team is going door-to-door interviewing and taking blood samples from women with Zika who recently gave birth. Many of these mothers are poor and scared, afraid for their children’s condition and concerned they can’t do enough to help, he said.

The team is trying to determine why some Zika-infected pregnant women gave birth to children with microcephaly, while others did not. They are checking whether other risk factors may be involved, such as smoking, alcohol or medical problems, he said.

Daigle has seen soldiers walking from house-to-house making sure people follow mosquito controls such as draining water from open containers.

Reese Hoffa, the shot putter, hopes the threat of Zika subsides by the time the Olympics start on Aug. 5.

He and Renata have been married 10 years, and they’ve held off having children to advance his career. This would be their first baby.

Right now they are forming a plan: If Renata is pregnant when the games start, she’ll stay home. If not, well, the plan gets kind of vague there. That’s because Reese worries he’ll catch the virus and bring it back home.

He’s also hoping for a lot more answers. He believes the U.S. Olympic Committee will soon start disseminating information on the exact nature of the disease, the level of risk in Rio, and precautions athletes can take to protect themselves.

“I think I’m going to go, unless I could come back with something dangerous,” he said.

Hoffa is 38, so this is his last shot at an Olympic gold medal, having competed in three games.

But if Zika is still raging, and he senses danger, he said he won’t back down from making a tough choice.

“Me and my wife will have to talk,” he said.

___

Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

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