U.S. Olympic Team Will Serve as Test Subjects in Zika Virus Study

The study aims to improve understanding of the virus by identifying potential risk factors for infection

Photo: Ricardo Mazalan/AP

Select U.S. athletes, coaches and members of the Olympic committee staff will be subjects in a study of the Zika virus, the National Institutes of Health announced Tuesday.

The study aims to improve understanding of the virus by identifying potential risk factors for infection, evaluating how long the virus remains in bodily fluids and studying the reproductive outcomes of Zika-infected patients.

“Zika virus infection poses many unknown risks, especially to those of reproductive age,” Catherine Y. Spong, M.D., acting director of National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), said in a statement.

“Monitoring the health and reproductive outcomes of members of the U.S. Olympic team offers a unique opportunity to answer important questions and help address an ongoing public health emergency.”

Brazil, the host nation for this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, has been the hardest hit by the mosquito-borne virus that has spread to 61 countries and territories.

Health officials have advised pregnant women to avoid travel to affected areas as the virus has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect in which infants are born with undersized heads and developmental issues.

Because Zika can also be transmitted sexually and may persist in semen longer than blood, a number of athletes, including American cyclist Tejay van Garderen and Australian golfer Jason Day, have opted to skip the games, citing concern for the health of their families.

A pilot study in March and April found that one-third of the 150 participants indicated that they or their partner planned to become pregnant within 12 months of the Olympic Games. The full study aims to enroll at least 1,000 men and women traveling to Rio for the games.

Study participants will routinely provide samples of bodily fluids so that researchers may detect infected individuals, 80 percent of whom do not display symptoms. This could lead to a better understanding of the risks of asymptomatic versus symptomatic infections and how long the virus remains transmittable in semen.

Said study lead Carrie L. Byington, M.D., “We partnered with the USOC to improve knowledge of the dynamics of Zika infection, so that we can better protect the health of athletes and staff who will participate in the 2016 Games.”

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