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US Olympic Team Will Be Studied for Zika

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When the U.S. Olympic team heads to Brazil in the coming weeks for the start of the Summer Games, some athletes will be studied to see if they become infected with the Zika virus.

The government-funded study will involve at least 1,000 members of the U.S. Olympic team, including athletes, coaches and staff, according to the National Institutes of Health, which announced plans for the study today (July 5).

Those who sign up for the study will undergo periodic tests for Zika, the virus that's currently causing an outbreak in Brazil and other  countries in the Americas. People in the study who become infected with the Zika virus will be followed over time so that researchers can see how long the virus remains in their bodily fluids — including their blood, semen, vaginal secretions or saliva — as well as whether the virus affects any pregnancies in the team members or their partners for up to one year after the games, the NIH says.

Although the Zika virus is most often spread by mosquitoes, it can also spread through sexual activity and has been found to remain in semen for several months after infection.

"Zika virus infection poses many unknown risks, especially to those of reproductive age," Dr. Catherine Y. Spong, acting director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which funded the study, said in a statement. "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." [7 Ways Pregnant Women Affect Babies]

The Zika virus outbreak, which began in Brazil last year, has spread rapidly to several dozen countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean. To date, 935 cases of Zika have been reported in the U.S., according to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In nearly all cases, people caught the virus either while traveling abroad or through sexual activity with a person who had recently traveled abroad (in one case, a person working with Zika in a laboratory became infected.) No one has caught the virus from a mosquito bite in the U.S.

The virus itself usually causes mild or no symptoms, but in pregnant women, it can lead to a severe birth condition in the fetus known as microcephaly that causes the baby's brain and head to be abnormally small.

The study "opens avenues for long-term research that promises to benefit not only the Americas, but also other regions facing the emergence of the virus," said Dr. Carrie Byington, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at the University of Utah, who will lead the study.

Before heading to Brazil, all members of the U.S. Olympic team will be provided with educational materials about the Zika virus, and they will be asked if they would like to participate in the study. The Summer Olympics will take place from Aug. 5 to Aug. 21 in Rio de Janeiro.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner
Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.