U of U researchers collecting samples from Olympic athletes to study Zika virus

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The University of Utah’s team of researchers who are studying the effects of the Zika virus for the United States Olympic Committee is on track to complete their study.

The University’s Chief of Pediatrics and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Andrew Pavia, said the team is on track to collect its goal of 1,000 volunteers headed to Rio, Brazil.

“We targeted about 650 regular Olympic athletes, and we enrolled almost 700," Dr. Pavia said. "And in the beginning of September we will be enrolling another 300-400 Paralympians. We just finished right before the beginning of the opening ceremonies with a large enrollment down in Houston. If they become ill while in Rio, we have asked them to collect specimens for us. They will collect blood, urine and saliva.”

The study’s goals include gathering more information on:

1. The risk factors for catching Zika.
2. The length of time the virus live in the body.
3. Any pregnancy that stems from the games and details on the fetus’ growth.

“For that we are going to be collecting saliva, blood, urine, vaginal secretions, semen, and see how long the virus persists," Dr. Pavia said. "That's a question the world does not have a good answer to yet."

Dr. Pavia said the scientific community knows microcephaly is when the brain does not fully develop, and that is a side effect of Zika in pregnant women.

“Women who get infected in the first three months of pregnancy, somewhere in 1 to 5 percent of children will have some variant of microcephaly," Dr. Pavia said.

But there are two other, more rare, complications that can occur in non-pregnant women.

“There are other severe but very rare complications of Zika," Dr. Pavia said. "Guillain Barre syndrome is a form of paralysis that can occur after many viruses, but we are now seeing it after Zika infection. And Thrombocytopenia, or a drop in the platelet count--which are needed to clot the blood--is another complication that's been reported rarely."

The volunteer athletes have been educated on how to avoid being bitten by a mosquito, but if they are bitten and do develop the virus, their samples will provide answers. Those answers may help the U of U team compile data that could help lead to a vaccine for the virus.