Sport

Zika virus hits home for Rio Olympic Games hopeful Rebecca Henderson

Canberra mountain-biker Rebecca Henderson knows how devastating the effects of a mosquito-borne virus can be after her brother Ben fell ill for almost two years.

That's why the Olympic Games hopeful is paying close attention to the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil and advice from Australian team officials that pregnant women should not travel to Rio.

Rebecca Henderson says she could limit her time in Rio if the Zika virus is a major problem.
Rebecca Henderson says she could limit her time in Rio if the Zika virus is a major problem. Photo: Getty Images

Henderson, who won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2014, floated the prospect of limiting her time in Rio if she is picked for her second Olympic team, and will consider a fly-in, fly-out preparation if necessary.

Australia's potential Olympians have been told to take a mosquito net when travelling to Rio as concerns over the Zika virus grow, with links to potentially lethal brain defects in infants.

A doctor in Brazil measures the head of a two-month-old baby with microcephaly.
A doctor in Brazil measures the head of a two-month-old baby with microcephaly. Photo: Getty Images

Henderson will wait for more information from Australian team officials.

But the news hit closer to home than most five years after Ben Henderson contracted the uncommon Chikungunya virus and Epstein-Barr virus after more than 50 mosquito bites in Malaysia.

Advertisement

It left the rising mountain bike star battling chronic fatigue and clinical depression for almost two years, crushing his dreams of racing at the London Olympics in 2012.

"I probably wouldn't go back to Langkawi after seeing what happened to Ben," Rebecca Henderson said.

Ben Henderson contracted Chikungunya virus in Malaysia after 50 mosquito bites in 2011.
Ben Henderson contracted Chikungunya virus in Malaysia after 50 mosquito bites in 2011. Photo: Jay Cronan

"It was a scary time and it's been tough for him. I guess we've got some experience about it in my family.

"The Australian team have sent out the warning, they're aware of it and it's definitely early days. I don't know too much about the one in Rio.

"I'm not in a rush to make any decisions, but after seeing what happened to my brother you know that it's not something that you can just dismiss.

"One of my family friends is doing some research on the Zika virus so we'll stay up to date with it."

The Australian Olympic Committee contacted 1200 Rio hopefuls on Friday, with a letter from team doctor David Hughes detailing information about the virus.

The World Health Organisation said the "level of alarm is extremely high" and the Zika virus has been linked to microcephaly, a rare birth defect that results in babies being born with an unusually small head.

The AOC has warned pregnant team members – athletes and officials – to consider whether to go to Rio. It will also affect the decision of wives, girlfriends and families of athletes and whether they will travel.

Henderson and partner Dan McConnell will base themselves in the United States before Rio if they are picked in the Australian team.

The athletics team will also base themselves in Florida before going to Rio.

Henderson said one option was reducing time in the athletes' village, given the mountain bike event is just one race.

But she will make a decision closer to the event when all of the information is available.

Canberra javelin thrower Kelsey-Lee Roberts said: "The fact that the Australian Olympic team and doctors are being proactive about it is encouraging.

"They've already put things in place to help look after us while we're over there. I've only heard bits and pieces [about the virus].

"It's concerning that it has just boomed over the last couple of days. But I don't know enough about it."

Insect repellent manufacturer Bushman has been signed up as an Olympic sponsor and will supply 1000 units of its heavy-duty repellent.

Once final team selections have been made there will be about 450 athletes and 300 coaches, doctors and other officials travelling to the Olympics in August.

Henderson helped run the Duo Classic cycling event in Canberra on Saturday, with a record 450 entrants competing.

The Australian mountain bike team will be finalised in June or July, with Henderson hoping for selection to improve her finish of 25th four years ago.

The 24-year-old will compete in World Cup events from April as her Olympic preparation.