Researchers will conduct Zika study on U.S. Olympians in Brazil

In this Jan. 27 photo, samples of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, responsible for transmitting dengue and Zika, sit in a petri dish at the Fiocruz Institute in Brazil.
Image: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Researchers with the National Institutes of Health will study the Zika virus with the help of U.S. athletes and staff travelingto Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games.

The study aims to better understand how Zika “persists in the body and to identify potential factors that influence the course of infection,” according to an announcement on the NIH website.

Zika virus infection poses many unknown risks, especially to those of reproductive age, Catherine Spong, the acting director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said in the release. 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.

Researchers hope to study how many/how often athletes are infected with Zika; whether the virus lives best in blood, saliva, vaginal fluid or other parts of the body; the amount of time the virus is able to survive in those parts of the body; and how it impacts the reproductive ability of infected individuals.

Researchers also hope to study what factors provide the greatest risk for infection.

While at the Games, tourists, athletes and staff may also have to contend with a “super bacteria” found in waters around the city, as well as preparation for the Games that has at times been fatally lacking.

As for Zika, it’s unclear if researchers expect U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes and staff to be exposed to the virus, much less become infected.

Zika is a dangerous disease. At times, it shows no symptoms, but it can cause serious birth defects in children whose mothers were infected before the child’s birth.

Yet, though 1.5 million people in Brazil have become infected since 2014, the concentration of infections is hundreds of miles away from Rio, where the athletes and staff will be during the Games. The chance of infection for them and for tourists is small.

Nonetheless, researchers hope to get 1,000 athletes and staff to participate in the study.

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