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Simple precautions can help protect Pirates from Zika on Puerto Rico trip

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, May 2, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

If only the Pirates would take a cue from ballplayers in South Korea.

At the summer Olympics in Brazil, South Korean athletes will wear long-sleeved shirts and pants in an effort to protect themselves from the much-dreaded, mosquito-borne Zika.

The clothing will be dyed with mosquito-repellent chemicals and will be used during training, opening ceremonies and at the athletes' village.

Some Pirates players have expressed concern about Zika as they plan a two-game series at the end of May in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They've talked about calling off the series, telling Major League Baseball officials they're worried about the health and safety of players, coaches and their families. Players met over the weekend with several health experts and, as of this writing, the games are on.

The island in the Caribbean — where I was born and raised until I was 18 and came to Pittsburgh — has been hit hard by Zika. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 680 cases on the island, a U.S. territory.

The worries no doubt escalated last week when Puerto Rico health officials announced that a man infected with Zika died from complications of the infection. It was the first Zika death in the United States.

The number of cases in Puerto Rico sounds high, but it represents a tiny fraction of the island's 3.5 million people. While there have been no cases reported that originated in the U.S. mainland, it is very possible that Zika could start popping up in southern states this summer. We could start seeing Zika in the Gulf Coast, in cities like Houston and New Orleans.

As infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja told me, “As the disease takes hold in more and more places, it will be hard to completely eliminate risk.”

So do we cancel sporting events in these cities, too?

Virtually every day, we see news reports of Zika's devastation in countries like Brazil: babies born with abnormally small heads and brain damage. Heartbreaking, no doubt, but such images confound more than illuminate. Most who get Zika experience mild symptoms or none at all.

When I was growing up, there were other mosquito-borne viruses on the island, including dengue, which causes a flu-like illness and can be deadly. Kids in my neighborhood still went outside, swam at the beach and, gasp, played kickball and basketball on the street.

A mosquito-borne illness can be prevented by avoiding mosquito bites. There are dozens of effective repellents. It's one of the essential strategies to prevent a Zika infection, according to the CDC. Another one is to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.

The Pirates have told players not to venture outside their hotel when they're not playing, a strategy that seems far-fetched. None of the players are women, pregnant or not, which is the group of people facing the highest risk. The virus can be sexually transmitted, but we can all agree that there are ways to practice safe sex for those concerned about transmission.

The players won't get to experience my beautiful hometown, the place that gave us the legendary Roberto Clemente. The island awaits the Pirates with open arms — and plenty of mosquito repellent.

Luis Fábregas is the Tribune-Review's deputy managing editor for news. Reach him at lfabregas@tribweb.com or 412-320-7998.

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