NIH to study Zika in Olympic athletes

NIH to study Zika in Olympic athletes
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U.S. researchers are launching a study of hundreds of American Olympic athletes and staffers this summer to learn more about the effects of the Zika virus, which has plagued South America.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced Tuesday it is funding a study to determine what puts people at risk for infection and how long individuals can carry the virus.

The Olympics take place this August in Rio de Janeiro, a city at the epicenter of the global epidemic of Zika. 

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Although the virus does not typically produce dangerous symptoms in adults, it can cause a severe birth defect known as microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.

The NIH hopes to recruit at least 1,000 men and women for the study, making it one of the largest studies to date for the still-mysterious disease. Researchers will track participants for up to one year to be able to monitor any pregnancies.

The research is kicking off now despite a lack of new funding for the NIH and other health agencies because Congress has yet to approve emergency funding to combat the disease. Lawmakers have proposed more than $1 billion in new funding, some of which could go to research, though partisan a dispute over Planned Parenthood has stalled the bill.

Some Democrats in Congress have raised concerns about holding the Olympics in Rio as the virus spreads rapidly in Brazil. 

Global health officials, including the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have repeatedly said they do not support postponing the Olympics this year because of Zika.

Several athletes, however, have said they would skip the Olympics because of the virus, particularly those who would be performing outdoors. That includes several golfers, including the world’s No. 1 player, Jason Day.

The study will be run by the NIH National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“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,” Dr. Catherine Spong, the acting director of the child health center, wrote in a statement.

The Olympic Committee recently created an Infectious Disease Advisory Group, led by University of Utah researcher Dr. Carrie Byington. Byington will now lead the NIH’s study.