Health

Rio Olympics to Be Petri Dish for Study of Zika Virus

The U.S. Olympic Committee is seeking volunteers from its athletes and staff to submit fluid samples and to be tracked.

Zika Virus: What You Need to Know in Two Minutes

Talk about taking one for the team. In an upcoming study announced on Tuesday, the U.S. Olympic Committee, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, is hoping to volunteer its own staffers and U.S. Olympic athletes for a study that will help researchers answer some basic questions about the Zika virus.

Zika has spread to more than 60 countries and caused more than 1,600 serious birth defects, mostly in Brazil. The USOC is hoping to enroll at least 1,000 men and women among the athletes, coaches, and USOC staffers attending the summer games in Rio de Janeiro, as well as their partners. The 2016 U.S. Olympic team is expected to contain over 500 athletes, and the USOC counts more than 3,000 employees with plans to travel to Brazil.

The study, led by Carrie L. Byington from the University of Utah-Salt Lake City, aims to determine the frequency of and factors influencing infection, as well as how the virus behaves once it is in the body and how it affects reproductive outcomes. 

The researchers will track volunteers' health by testing for the presence of antibodies to the virus in their bodily fluids—blood, saliva, semen, and vaginal secretions—both before they leave for Brazil and two weeks after they have returned. Anyone who is ill during the Olympics will also have the opportunity to submit specimens while in Rio; those who test positive, whether or not they have symptoms, will be asked to participate in monthly testing for at least six months afterward.

“This is an important study because it’s going to provide us some very timely and interesting information on the incidence of Zika for travelers to an area where there’s active Zika transmission,” said Dr. Catherine Y. Spong, acting director of the NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "One of the important questions for us is looking at people who are symptomatic versus asymptomatic. Most people who get Zika do not know that they have it." An estimated 80 percent of people infected don't get sick, she said.

This sample population is also especially relevant to travelers from the U.S. “It is going to be able to provide information for us in people that don’t have that background of dengue and [other flaviviruses],” Spong said. These diseases, which, like Zika, are often transmitted through mosquitoes, are endemic to Brazil. Opportunities to study Zika in populations not already exposed to them are infrequent.

The participants themselves, however, present a limiting factor for the study, because they will provide researchers with a best-case scenario, said Dr. William Schaffner, infectious-disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

“These are highly educated and motivated people, and they are going to do everything they can to prevent Zika infections,” he said. Plus, the games are happening during Brazil’s winter, when the country will have fewer mosquitoes. Therefore, Schaffner predicts a relatively small number of infections, a possibility that Spong recognizes, too.

Still, he said, this is a “rigorous, prospective study that is going to address some of the basic scientific questions” that are still vexing scientists about the spreading disease.

Another upside: the price tag. The study will cost an estimated $302,000. That's a pittance, compared to the $1.9 billion that President Barack Obama requested more than five months ago, which Congress has declined to provide. “For such a large study, that is quite inexpensive,” Schaffner said.

For now, the researchers still need to find test subjects, but they are optimistic about enrollment.

"People are eager to participate," said Byington, the study's leader, "so that they can make informed decisions about their own reproductive health, and so that they can contribute to generating knowledge for others living in Zika-endemic areas."

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