In an effort to learn more about the dreaded disease, the US National Institutes of Health is funding a study in which a group of US athletes, coaches and staff will be monitored for exposure to the Zika virus while attending the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Brazil. The American 4x100 relay team at the London Olympic Games in 2012. (Image: Citizen59/Flickr)
Earlier this year, the US Olympic Committee (USOC) said that American athletes should consider skipping the Summer Olympics in Rio if they're concerned about the Zika virus. At the same time, they're being told that, as long as they take the necessary precautions, there's nothing to worry about. But for the many who still insist on going, the athletes are now being asked to participate in a study designed to shore up many of the "unknown risks" associated with the disease, "especially to those of reproductive age".
Talk about mixed messages. These Olympics are poised to be the strangest in recent memory.
With financial help from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), this new study will be conducted by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Its aims to improve our understanding of how Zika persists in the body and to identify any risk factors that influence the course of infections.
The research team, led by Carrie Byington from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, is hoping to enrol at least 1000 men and women, the majority of whom will be involved in the US Olympic team in some form.
"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."
Primary goals of the study will be to determine the rate of Zika virus infection, identify potential risk factors, detect where the virus persists in the body (for example, blood, semen, vaginal secretions or saliva) and evaluate how long the virus remains in the body. Zika-infected participants will be monitored for up to a year.
"Monitoring the health and reproductive outcomes of members of the US Olympic team offers a unique opportunity to answer important questions and help address an ongoing public health emergency," noted NICHD acting director Catherine Spong.
The US Centres for Disease Control will also be contributing by supplying Zika virus testing kits and offering training on how to use them. Around 3000 USOC staff members are expected to travel to Brazil, along with their spouses and partners, who are also eligible to participate.