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New Zika study will use Olympic athletes as test subjects

New Zika study will use Olympic athletes as test subjects


During the Rio 2016 games

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The National Institutes of Health is funding a new study of the Zika virus that will observe exposure among Olympic athletes, coaches, and other Olympic Committee staff in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. The study "aims to improve understanding of how the virus persists in the body and to identify potential factors that influence the course of infection," according to a NIH press release put out this morning. The games start on August 5th and extend to September 18th with the conclusion of the Paralympics.

Dr. Carrie L. Byington of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City will lead the study, and the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is providing the funding. "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," Byington said in a statement. "This ongoing relationship also opens avenues for long-term research that promises to benefit not only the Americas, but also other regions facing the emergence of the virus."

As many as 1,000 athletes, coaches, and staff members may participate in the Zika study

The goal is to better understand the spread of the mosquito-born virus, including its incidence rate, risk factors for infection, where the virus resides in the body, and how it affects the reproductive outcome of those infected. Byington hopes to enroll about 1,000 people, all of whom will submit health surveys and submit bodily fluids to test for infection. Brazil, as the global epicenter for the virus, contains a wealth of valuable research material, especially with an estimated 500,000 foreign tourists traveling to the country for the games. Despite warnings from health officials to cancel or move the event, the Olympic Committee is going forward with the games as planned.

Zika was declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization back in February. Researchers have since been hard at work developing an effective vaccine and tracking the spread of the disease. Scientists last month announced two vaccine candidates shown to protect mice against two strains of Zika, but human clinical trials have yet to be conducted. Zika, meanwhile, continues to spread. As many as 90,000 cases have been reported in Brazil between February and April alone, while three babies born in the US last month contained Zika-related birth defects.

A Zika vaccine has yet to be tested on humans

While Zika symptoms don't typically show in adults, pregnant mothers infected by the virus in their first trimester have as high as a 13 percent chance of giving birth to children with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly, among other severe birth defects. The Centers for Disease Control is also looking into a link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome. The neurological auto-immune disease causes paralysis — and can even lead to death — in people of all ages.

The Zika virus, explained