While the known spread and impacts of Zika virus raise concerns about the upcoming convergence of international visitors to the Olympic and Paralympic games in the country that has seen more infections than any other, it is the unknowns that will bring researchers to study the health of U.S. Olympic team members traveling to Brazil this summer.
The researchers, funded by the National Institutes of Health and led by members of the U.S. Olympic Committee-established Infectious Disease Advisory Group, plan to enroll at least 1000 athletes, coaches and staff attending the games from the U.S. in an effort to better understand dynamics of infection, and persistence of the virus, that among other impacts causes severe birth defects in the offspring of women infected during their pregnancies. The effort will build on findings from a two-month pilot study that began in March enrolling 150 participants. In addition to finding that a third of those participants were planning pregnancies within a year of the Olympic games, according to study leader Dr. Carrie Byington, the initial study yielded information on ways to communicate and gather knowledge of risks associated with Zika infection.
Dr. Byington, who heads the U.S. Olympic Committee Infectious Disease Advisory group proposed the study, which is designed to gather data that could be provided from infection rates among participants of from 1-to-5 percent. That is higher than the rate predicted by the World Health Organization which has noted that Brazil is now in the midst of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, that escalated efforts will be made to control the mosquito that transmits the virus, and that the virus has spread internationally in any case, in saying that the mass gathering does not pose heightened risks of international spread. In addition, the U.S. Olympic Committee has said that efforts to protect team members include air-conditioned quarters, distribution of mosquito repellent and long-sleeved shirts and pants, and of condoms to prevent sexual transmission of the virus.
Researchers say they hope the study opens opportunities for long-term inquiry into the effects, impacts and behavior of the virus, while adding to opportunities to better protect Olympic participants.