Researchers from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced Tuesday that they’re already setting aside money to study American Olympians who contract the Zika virus while competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil.
The NIH aims to study at least 1,000 athletes, coaches and staff. Infected Olympians will provide samples of bodily fluids for routine testing to help determine risk factors for infection, and where and how long the virus persists in the body.
International health officials previously said pregnant women should skip the games, but the virus can also be spread through sex and may persist in semen longer than blood. Athletes from several countries have dropped out, citing Zika worries.
There are currently 935 cases of Zika confirmed in the continental U.S. as well as another 2,026 in American territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority of the cases were from people who traveled to a Zika-prone country, such as Brazil.
Zika virus infections in pregnant women are directly linked to fetal deaths and devastating birth defects such as microcephaly, when a baby is born with an abnormally small head, according to the CDC. Laboratory studies also confirmed the presence of Zika virus in the blood, tissue, brains and amniotic fluid of fetuses and babies diagnosed with microcephaly.
A study published in March by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito could spread as far north as New York City this summer if the weather is warmer than average.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito lives in tropical climates. Zika likely won’t spread as prolifically in the U.S. as it has in Latin America and the Caribbean, due to the high number of Americans living and working behind air-conditioned doors. The study also found that small numbers of the mosquitoes can survive in much of North America during spring and fall when temperatures cool.
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