Tag Archives: Zika

Rare genetic mutations and the fruit fly explain how Zika causes microcephaly

In the early part of 2016, the World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee (EC) under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR 2005) discussed the clusters of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) cases that have been temporally associated with Zika virus transmission.

Brazil, France, the United States of America, and El Salvador provided information on a potential association between microcephaly and other neurological disorders with Zika virus. The recent cluster of microcephaly cases was considered a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Several months later, the WHO confirmed in a scientific consensus that the Zika virus is linked with microcephaly as well as Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Three years and several studies later, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine revealed one way how in utero Zika virus infection can lead to microcephaly in newborns. The team discovered that the Zika virus protein NS4A interrupts the growth of the brain by taking control of a pathway that regulates the generation of new neurons.

Rare genetic mutations helped explain how Zika causes microcephaly

Zika virus protein NS4A interacts with ANKLE2, a protein linked to hereditary microcephaly.

“The current study was initiated when a patient presented with a small brain size at birth and severe abnormalities in brain structures at the Baylor Hopkins Center for Mendelian Genomics (CMG),” said Dr. Hugo Bellen, professor at Baylor, investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital.

This patient and others in a cohort at CMG had not been infected by Zika virus in utero. They had a genetic defect that caused microcephaly. CMG scientists determined that the ANKLE2 gene was associated with the condition.

Several years ago, Dr. Bellen and colleagues discovered in the fruit fly model that the ANKLE2 gene was associated with neurodevelopmental disorders. In a subsequent fruit fly study, the researchers demonstrated that overexpression of Zika protein NS4A causes microcephaly in the flies by inhibiting the function of ANKLE2, a cell cycle regulator that acts by suppressing the activity of VRK1 protein. Since very little is known about the role of ANKLE2 or VRK1 in brain development, Bellen and his colleagues applied a multidisciplinary approach to tease apart the exact mechanism underlying ANKLE2-associated microcephaly.

The fruit fly helps clarify the mystery

This image shows the two lobes of the brain of a fruit fly larva with hundreds of neurons, colored green, and stem cells, colored magenta. 

To figure out how Ankle2 mutations were influencing brain formation, the researchers went back to flies. Normally, Ankle2 works with a series of other genes to control the division of neuroblasts — stem cells that give rise to neurons. These cells are crucial for proper brain development.

Mutations in the Ankle2 gene, though, messed with neuroblast division. Larval flies with the mutation had fewer neuroblasts and smaller-than-expected brains. Further analyses revealed more details about how Ankle2 regulates asymmetric neuroblast division. They found that Ankle2 protein interacts with VRK1 kinases, and that Ankle2 mutants alter this interaction in ways that disrupt asymmetric cell division.

The Zika connection

In the future, a drug that protects this protein could stop Zika’s damaging developmental effects, says Dr. Hugo Bellen.

“For decades, researchers have been unsuccessful in finding experimental evidence between defects in asymmetric cell divisions and microcephaly in vertebrate models. The current work makes a giant leap in that direction and provides strong evidence that links a single evolutionarily conserved Ankle2/VRK1 pathway as a regulator of asymmetric division of neuroblasts and microcephaly. Moreover, it shows that irrespective of the nature of the initial triggering event, whether it is a Zika virus infection or congenital mutations, the microcephaly converges on the disruption of Ankle2 and VRK1, making them promising drug targets.”

Europe sees first cases of Zika, as experts warn over climate change effects

Rising temperature brought in by climate heating is causing an increase in infectious diseases across the globe, with Zika being the most recent example. The first cases of the virus were just confirmed in Europe, with three people infected in France.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Since the outbreak started in 2015 in South America, Europe has seen about 2.400 cases of Zika. But all the infections until now were picked up by tourists visiting other countries and then brought back to their home countries. Now, the three people were infected directly in Europe, showing that the disease-carrying mosquito can survive and spread its pathogens in a warming European climate.

According to the European Center for Diseases Prevention and Control (ECDPC), the three cases were found in the French Riviera in August. The patients had symptoms only within a few days from each other, which means they were part of the same transmission cycle.

The ECDPC confirmed they have already recovered, adding that the risk to residents and travelers to the region is low. Nevertheless, global warming and increased travel between continents mean tropical diseases including Zika could easily expand in Europe — and ‘low’ is more than zero.

The findings are “the first time that locally acquired Zika cases were identified, which poses new challenges for the control of these diseases,” Moritz Kraemer, a researcher into infectious diseases at the University of Oxford, told CNN.

While most infected usually don’t develop symptoms, Zika can cause fever, rash or a headache. The disease can be especially risky for pregnant women, as it can cause premature births, miscarriages and birth defects. In Brazil, about 2.000 kids were affected by microcephaly.

Zika is not something new as it was identified around 70 years back in Uganda, specifically in the forest of Zika. Since then, there have been small outbreaks in several areas of the world such as the Pacific Islands. The major complications started when the virus arrived in Brazil and then expanded to other areas of Latin America.

Vector-borne diseases are transmitted typically by the bite of an infected arthropod such as mosquito, tick, or black fly. Or it might be a less familiar species such as an African Tsetse fly or copepod. These arthropods that carry and transmit diseases are known as vectors.

Diseases and climate change

The discovery of Zika in Europe is not an isolated phenomenon. Climate change caused by man-made actions is leading to longer and more frequent heatwaves and rains. These are excellent conditions for insects to thrive, which enables them to spread their habitats. Vector insects live more when there are extended periods of warm weather and also fly into new areas that were previously too cold and reproduce in water deposits left by the rain

Areas with cooler temperatures such as European countries or the United States have been able to keep mosquito-borne diseases. Nevertheless, this is already changing. In the US, biologist Eric Ordecai found that mosquitoes can adapt to a wide range of temperatures and carry different diseases.

A study published in March said one billion people could face “their first exposure” to a host of mosquito-borne diseases by 2080 under extreme global warming. European countries would be the most affected, the study led by Sadie Ryan said.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change has already altered the distribution of some disease vectors. There is evidence that the geographic range of ticks and mosquitoes that carry disease has changed in response to climate change. Ticks have extended their range north in Sweden and Canada and into higher altitudes in the Czech Republic.

Here’s how Skrillex’s music could help fight Zika and dengue fever

Despite advances in technologies, diseases transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, including Zika, chikungunya, and dengue—are still serious public health problems worldwide. It is difficult to control or eliminate Ae. aegypti mosquitoes because they are highly resilient and can rapidly bounce back to initial numbers after disturbances such as droughts or human interventions. Their eggs can withstand desiccation (drying) and they can survive without water for several months on the inner walls of containers.

As with most mosquito-borne diseases, efforts to fight Aedes-borne viral illnesses have mainly focused on the application of insecticides. Although insecticides have been historically useful in managing mosquito-borne diseases, increased resistance to all four classes of insecticide used to date and adverse effects on the health of animals and humans have led to anti-pesticide activism.

A recent scientific study may have added a new tool in the fight against diseases carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – electronic music by Skrillex, specifically dubstep.

Sound is “crucial for reproduction, survival, and population maintenance of many animals,” says a team of international experts from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Malaysia), Mosquito Research and Control Unit (Cayman Islands), Fukuoka University (Japan), Lambung Mangkurat University (Indonesia), Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, and Mahidol University (Thailand).

Adults Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were presented with two sound environments (music-off or music-on). Discrepancies in visitation, blood feeding, and copulation patterns were compared between environments with and without music. Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, a track by Skrillex was chosen because of its mix of very high and very low frequencies.

“In insects, low-frequency vibrations facilitate sexual interactions, whereas noise disrupts the perception of signals from conspecifics [members of the same species] and hosts,” the scientists said. Female adult mosquitoes were “entertained” by the track and attacked hosts later and less often than those in a dubstep-free environment. Scientists said, “the occurrence of blood feeding activity was lower when music was being played”. The scientists also found that mosquitoes exposed to the song had sex “far less often” than mosquitoes without music.

The results, which were published in the journal Acta Tropica, were good news for the global health community and for Skrillex. This observation that such kinds of music can delay host attack, reduce blood feeding, and disrupt mating offers new avenues for the development of music-based personal protective and control measures against Aedes-borne diseases.

The album Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites won two Grammys at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, one for Best Dance Recording, and another for Best Dance / Electronica Album. Since Skrillex has teamed up with Ty Dolla $ign on Mariah Carey’s ‘The Distance’, perhaps a combination of beats from Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites plus Mariah’s whistle notes would even be more effective and make the Aedis mosquitoes proceed with Caution.

Miami launches bacteria-infected mosquitoes to fight Zika virus

The Miami-Dade County website released a statement which announces that the Wolbachia infected mosquitoes will be released in South Miami to combat Zika virus.

Credits: Pixabay/ekamelev

These mosquitoes are lab-grown by the Kentucky-based company MosquitoMate. The test is in collaboration with the Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control and Habitat Management Division.

Wolbachia is a naturally-occurring bacterium present in up to 60 percent of all the different species of insects around us, mosquitoes included. Researchers discovered that when infected male mosquitoes mated with non-infected females, the eggs did not hatch, hence reducing mosquito populations.

These Male mosquitoes do not bite (they feed on pollen) and are friendly to the environment by increasing pollination.

A one-half-square-mile treatment area and a similarly-sized control area will be designated within the City of South Miami. Surveys of the Aedes aegypti populations will be taken before and after weekly or twice-weekly treatments.

Successful trials in Kentucky, California, and New York have been carried out by MosquitoMate. Scientists registered significant reduction of Aedes aegypti female populations. The reduction only affected this species of mosquitoes.

Last spring, a similar trial took place in Key West but ended prematurely due to Hurricane Irma’s landfall. The results are still pending.


New study shows how Zika might re-emerge and strike the United States

Brazilian officials have just declared the end of the Zika pandemic, but we aren’t rid of that problem yet.

There’s a year-round community of mosquitoes around Miami which can help propagate Zika in and through the US. Image credits: Smallbones.

Researchers are preparing themselves for a potential new wave of Zika outbreaks so that this time, the diseases doesn’t catch us by surprise. A new study conducted by researchers from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) showed how the virus entered the United States several times and might do the same once more.

They basically sequenced the virus’ genome at several points during the pandemic, to create a family tree and understand how it spread. This is a state-of-the-art technique, which only recently became possible.

“Without these genomes, we wouldn’t be able to reconstruct the history of how the virus moved around,” said TSRI infectious disease researcher and senior author of the study, Kristian G. Andersen, who also serves as director of infectious disease genomics at the Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI). “Rapid viral genome sequencing during ongoing outbreaks is a new development that has only been made possible over the last couple of years.”

He and his colleagues learned that Zika was transmitted through Florida at least four (and up to forty) times, which is worrying but can also help researchers better prepare in the future. This likely happened due to the environment around Miami, which is suitable for Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the main species that transmits Zika virus. In fact, Miami hosts year-round populations of this mosquito, and it is also a major international hub, bringing in more international traffic than any other city in the US. So you have two things you don’t really want together, and that’s how you could end up with Zika in the US.

But researchers also show how to fight this possibility: eliminate the mosquitoes.

“We show that if you decrease the mosquito population in an area, the number of Zika infections goes down proportionally,” said Andersen. “This means we can significantly limit the risk of Zika virus by focusing on mosquito control. This is not too surprising, but it’s important to show that there is an almost perfect correlation between the number of mosquitoes and the number of human infections.”

It’s not clear how Zika will evolve in the future, or what its consequences will be. After all, until recently, we didn’t even know how bad it can be, but one thing’s for sure: we’ve clearly underestimated this disease. Scientists aren’t idling, and they’re understanding Zika more and more. Hopefully, policymakers will heed their call and start preparations before a new pandemic gets underway.

Journal Reference: Nathan D. Grubaugh et al — Genomic epidemiology reveals multiple introductions of Zika virus into the United States. Naturedoi:10.1038/nature22400

Brazil says Zika epidemic is officially over

Although authorities are still on alert, the Zika epidemic seems to have backed off.

Countries where people have gotten Zika virus (as of January 2016). Image via Wikipedia / CDC.

It was one of the scariest and most unexpected outbreaks in recent years — the Zika virus was thought to be almost benign, causing no major issue, and almost never requiring hospitalization. However, Zika, which is transmitted either through mosquito bites or through sex, provided a nasty surprise when thousands of babies were born with severe birth defects such as microcephaly, due to the inconspicuous virus.

To make things even worse, the hotspot of the outbreak was Brazil, a country which was supposed to hold the 2016 Olympics (and did). As more and more cases were being reported in Brazil and neighboring countries, there was a concern that with people from all over the world coming to Brazil, the diseases would spread everywhere. Brazil declared a national emergency state in 2015, starting a campaign to eradicate the mosquitoes that spread the diseases.

Meanwhile, in 2016, there were 170,535 cases reported from January to April alone, causing the WHO to declare it a public health emergency of international concern. The word “pandemic” was increasingly used.

With Zika transmission reported in 23 countries and territories of the Americas as of early February, “the level of alarm is extremely high,” said World Health Organization Director-general Margaret Chan, MD, MPH. A committee convened by Chan officially declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern Feb. 1, indicating that the disease constitutes an international public health risk and requires a coordinated response.

“The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty,” Chan said Jan. 28 in announcing the committee. “Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.”

The symptoms of Zika vary in intensity, but are pretty generic in nature. Image credits: Beth.herlin.

Study after study shed more light on the virus and the disease, but at this point in time there is no real treatment for Zika. You just have it. You might not even feel sick or just exhibit flu-like symptoms, but then you pass it to a woman. If she becomes pregnant, then the child is at great risk. So it isn’t exactly the regular kind of disease that comes and kills you or makes you feel really bad. Instead, it’s a disease whose threat might greatly spread in the long run.

Thankfully, Brazil’s anti-mosquito campaign proved to be effective and in 2017, there were only 7,911 cases of Zika from January to April. That’s still a concerning figure, but it’s a 95% reduction compared to the similar period in 2016.

“The end of the emergency doesn’t mean the end of surveillance or assistance” to affected families, said Adeilson Cavalcante, the secretary for health surveillance at Brazil’s Health Ministry. “The Health Ministry and other organizations involved in this area will maintain a policy of fighting Zika, dengue and chikungunya.”

Zika infections

One in ten pregnant women infected with Zika in the US had babies with birth defects

According to a report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 10 pregnant women from continental United States who had been infected with Zika had babies with birth defects. The report, which is the most comprehensive analysis of Zika-infected American pregnancies, answers many worrisome questions the public posed during the height of the crisis but leaves many issues open.

Zika infections

Pregnant women infected with Zika risk giving birth to babies with an abnormally small head and brain. Credit: Flickr, bra_j

Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito (Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopictus). There is no vaccine for Zika virus disease yet, which causes symptoms like mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise, or headache. The symptoms subside after 3-7 days but the biggest threat Zika possess is to pregnant women. It’s well established now that pregnant women infected with Zika risk giving birth to babies with microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and brains,  and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

“Zika virus can be scary and potentially devastating to families. Zika continues to be a threat to pregnant women across the U.S.,” said CDC Acting Director Anne Schuchat, M.D. “With warm weather and a new mosquito season approaching, prevention is crucial to protect the health of mothers and babies. Healthcare providers can play a key role in prevention efforts.”

The CDC report confirms previous studies which found women infected in the first trimester of their pregnancy are the most vulnerable. Some 15% of American women known to be infected with Zika during their first trimester had babies with birth defects. Overall, 10% of infected pregnant American women gave birth to babies with brain damage or other birth defects, so getting infected later in pregnancy can also be risky.

In total, the report covered 1,297 pregnancies which were tracked from Jan. 15 through Dec. 27, 2017. Of these pregnancies, 972 were confirmed to be Zika infected by lab evidence, which resulted in 895 live births and 77 losses (abortions, miscarriages, stillbirths).  Every 50 state and Washington, D.C, had at least once case of Zika-infected pregnancy.

Overall, 51 babies were born with birth defects. For the 250 cases or so where the presence of the Zika virus was confirmed, 24 pregnancies or 10 percent resulted in birth defects, most of which involved microcephaly. In eight cases, the damage included other brain malformations and dysfunctions in the central nervous system.

The report comes with a couple of caveats. Only 25 percent of the babies included in the study had their brains scanned, despite the CDC’s recommendation that all babies born to women with potential Zika infections should have their brains scanned. This limitation means we’re likely underestimating the birth defects that follow Zika in pregnancy. For instance, some babies that look fine at birth, i.e. with a normally sized head, might later be diagnosed with some congenital Zika syndrome.

“CDC recommends that pregnant women avoid travel to areas with risk of Zika and unprotected sex with a partner who has traveled to an area with Zika to prevent Zika-related birth defects in their babies,” said Peggy Honein, Ph.D., the Zika Response’s Pregnancy and Birth Defects Task Force co-lead. “CDC continues to work closely with health departments on the U.S. Zika Pregnancy Registry to follow up infants with possible congenital Zika virus infection and better understand the full range of disabilities that can result from this infection.”

[panel style=”panel-danger” title=”Key findings from the CDC’s report” footer=””]

  • Forty-four states reported pregnant women with evidence of Zika in 2016.
    • Most of these women acquired Zika virus infection during travel to an area with Zika.
  • Nearly 1,300 pregnant women with evidence of possible Zika infection were reported to the U.S. Zika Pregnancy Registry.
    • Of the 1,000 pregnancies that were completed by the end of the year, more than 50 had Zika-related birth defects.
  • Among pregnant women with confirmed Zika infection, about 1 in 10 had a fetus or baby with birth defects.
    • Confirmed infections in the first trimester posed the highest risk – with about 15% having Zika-related birth defects.
  • About 1 in 3 babies with possible congenital Zika infection had no report of Zika testing at birth.
  • Only 1 in 4 babies with possible congenital Zika infection were reported to have received brain imaging after birth.




First case of Zika transmitted through touch in Utah was a freak occurrence, paper finds

The mysterious Utah Zika case has been solved — it probably won’t happen again, but the findings will still make you uncomfortable.

Image credits James Gathany / CDC.

In yet another worrying twist in the Zika epidemic, the Utah Department of Health reported on Monday that one case of infection in the state doesn’t fit anything we know about how the virus spreads. In July, a 73-year-old Salt Lake resident infected with Zika after a trip to Mexico died in Utah — one of his relatives, a 38-year-old man who helped care for him but did not travel to any Zika-infected areas or had intercourse with an infected person, also became infected.

Authorities were further baffled as the Aedes aegypti mosquito’s range, Zika’s primary carrier, doesn’t include Utah. A new paper published by the physicians from the University of Utah explains that this is the first documented case of the virus spreading through casual contact with an infected person.

Utah’s mystery Zika case has been solved, and the answer, as with so many revelations about Zika, is something never before seen with this virus. Someone seems to have gotten Zika through only casual physical contact with an infected person — the first such case that’s been documented.

Patient 2 says he’s come into physical contact with Patient 1 when assisting a nurse in repositioning him without using gloves, and when wiping his eyes during. He reported having no other contact with Patient 1’s blood or bodily fluids, including accidental splashes or mucous membrane exposure.

So that leaves only sweat or tears as a possible medium for infection. Previous research has found traces of Zika in infected mice’s tears, but no work has so far been performed on sweat. The team writes that Patient 2 probably had a cut somewhere on his hands or he accidentally touched his eyes, nose, or mouth with infected material on his fingers, creating an opportunity for infection.

“It should not be able to pass through unbroken skin,” says Sankar Swaminathan, the chief of infections disease at University of Utah Health Care, and first author on the paper.

The team notes that the uniqueness of Patient 1’s case allowed for the infection to occur. Zika fatalities are very rare, with only 13 adult deaths so far in the outbreak (not counting Guillain-Barré fatalities.) So for an adult patient to die of Zika there has to be a preexisting condition which compromises the immune system such as leukemia, Swaminathan says. Patient 1 didn’t have such a condition, but his infection was unusually severe. He had 200 million viral entities per milliliter — typically, that number revolves around hundreds of thousands, with one million being considered high. We don’t know exactly why, though — Zika is a pretty mild virus in adults.

The team proposes that the patient’s previous infection with dengue and the remaining antibodies somehow worsened the infection. Some dengue patients show a far worse infection with the virus. Or, the man was simply unlucky, having a genetic immune deficiency which suited the virus. “there’s some people we find who get very unusual manifestations of infections that 99.99 percent of people never get,” Swaminathan says. It could be that these people, though not otherwise immunocompromised, have specific weaknesses to particular pathogens.

“There’s some people we find who get very unusual manifestations of infections that 99.99 percent of people never get,” Swaminathan said, talking about infectious disease.

The end result was that Patient 1 struggled with an immense viral load, which eventually lead to shock, respiratory failure, and death. Swaminathan suspects that this huge concentration of viral bodies in his body allowed the virus to spread through Patient 1’s tears or sweat. The extent to which this can happen for usual Zika infections needs further research, the authors suggest.

Mosquitoes and sexual transmission are still the main worries, however.

“For the general public, this doesn’t really change very much,” Swaminathan says. “There’s no risk of shaking hands with a person who has a typical Zika infection.”

The full paper “Fatal Zika Virus Infection with Secondary Nonsexual Transmission” has been published online in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Miami Beach mosquitoes are carrying Zika, tests confirm

Miami Beach mosquitoes have tested positive for the Zika Virus, Florida state officials announced on Thursday. The findings confirm that the virus is still active in the area.

Thee cases of Zika-carrying mosquito larva have been identified in Miami Beach
Image credits Rob Cruickshank / Flickr.

The carrier mosquito for Zika, Aedes aegypti, is notoriously hard to fight — and very prolific. To get a better understanding of how the virus spread through the aegypti population, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) set up traps and tested the insects in several points of the state — a process which the experts likened to looking for a needle in a haystack.

Still, three samples they tested came out positive for the Zika virus, all collected in a 1.5 square-mile area in Miami Beach where locally acquired cases of Zika have been previously confirmed.

Scott Weaver, the director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said that the significance of the findings depends on the point of collection. If the mosquitoes were caught in or around the houses of people with active infections, the results aren’t alarming. But if they were taken from a more distant point, it would be indicative of the virus spreading.

We can’t find out, though — a spokeswoman of the Florida DACS said that they were prevented from disclosing the traps’ location because of state legislature. The department did reveal in a statement that since May it has tested over 2,470 mosquito samples, consisting of more than 40,000 mosquitoes. The three cases announced on Thursday were the first to test positive.

Florida is the only state in the continental US where Zika is active, but its habitat is spreading. The first cases were reported in Wynwood, a Miami neighborhood. The outbreak here seems to have subsided, but a new cluster of cases was discovered in Miami Beach on Aug. 18, and the CDC issued an official warning to pregnant women to avoid the area — in most cases, Zika only causes rashes and joint pain, but it’s extremely dangerous if contacted by pregnant women. The virus can cause severe brain defects in fetuses, a condition known as microcephaly. The CDC is tracking more than 1,500 cases of pregnant women who have been infected with Zika and at least 16 babies have been born with birth defects so far.

However, experts say that it’s unlikely Zika will see the same explosive spread in the US as in Latin America or the Caribbean, because of better living conditions — Americans live in less crowded conditions and usually have window screens and air conditioning, which hinder the mosquitoes. In total, there have been 45 confirmed homegrown cases of Zika in Miami-Dade County.

“The good news is the weekly number of new cases isn’t changing much,” Dr. Weaver said. “If we were seeing at first five cases a week, then 10, then 20 and then 100, we’d be very concerned.”

Miami Beach also hasn’t been targeted with the same aerial spraying efforts which have proven effective in Wynwood, partly because of its high buildings and partly because of opposition from residents.

But experts say aerial spraying there is possible, and on Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott said the C.D.C. had recommended that Miami Beach be sprayed using helicopters. He said the state had made funds available “to immediately conduct aerial spraying in Miami Beach.”

But it was not clear when that might happen. Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach city commissioner, said: “No determination has been made. It’s not really practical with all the geography.”

In the meantime, residents should invest in a chicken to sleep with — it might save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

The heads of two twin girls whose mother was infected with Zika during pregnancy. Credit: Radiology

Brain scans of Zika infected babies suggest the outbreak is worse than we thought

The heads of two twin girls whose mother was infected with Zika during pregnancy. Credit: Radiology

The heads of two twin girls whose mother was infected with Zika during pregnancy. Credit: Radiology

As scientists delve deeper and deeper into Zika, it seems like they’re finding hidden effects and perils almost each time. We previously reported, for instance, that the virus affects both the fetal and adult brain, possibly causing memory loss and cognitive diseases in the latter. Now, a new paper published in Radiology suggests the virus can inflict damages to many parts of the brain, previously thought to be unlinked with microcephaly.

The findings were made by a group of international researchers who used brain scans and ultrasound imaging on 45 Brazilian babies whose mothers were infected with Zika during pregnancy. All but three babies were born with microcephaly — a dreaded condition which causes babies to develop abnormal heads. This abnormality is due to a poorly developed brain during pregnancy. As reported earlier, the abnormally small brains are likely due to the fact that Zika kills a lot of neural progenitor cells in the fetus’ brain.

These latest images, however, suggest the impact Zika has on the brain is significantly more profound. The new analysis proves that Zika targets the corpus callosum, a wide, flat bundle of neural fibers that sits right between the two brain hemispheres and facilitates communications between them; the cerebellum, which is vital for coordinating movement, balance, and speech; and also the basal ganglia, which is involved in thinking and emotions.

This image shows a baby with contracted arms. Researchers say Zika damages nerves, so sometimes muscles won't develop properly because they don't have the brain impulses to move normally. Credit: Neurology

This image shows a baby with contracted arms. Researchers say Zika damages nerves, so sometimes muscles won’t develop properly because they don’t have the brain impulses to move normally. Credit: Neurology

Perhaps the most interesting finding was the calcification of the cortex. This is an unusual place for bundles of calcium to form, a common symptom for infections that attack the brain, and this knowledge could serve to identify or rule out Zika infections a lot earlier, maybe from the second trimester.

“The brain that should be there is not there,” said Dr. Deborah Levine, an author of the study and a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. “The abnormalities that we see in the brain suggest a very early disruption of the brain development process.”

“I think we were all aware that Zika causes brain abnormalities, but it’s been more generic,” said Dr. Rita Driggers, an associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, told the NY Times. “Now we know more specifically what we’re looking for in terms of brain abnormalities before the microcephaly occurs.”

The fact that Zika also damages the cortex is perhaps most worrisome. Researchers say this is a critical area for brain development since it is here that certain chemicals become released that signal where new neurons should grow, find their place and start making connections. It’s likely that Zika scrambles this process causing severe neural messaging and connectivity problems in the brain. Sadly, the full extent Zika will have on the lives of these babies will be uncovered only much later once they grow up — and it won’t be pleasant for anyone.


Illumination of the fluorescent biomarker in green revealed that the adult mouse brain could be infected by Zika. Credit: Cell Stem Cell

Zika infection kills brain cells in the adult mouse brain — pandemic might be worse than thought

Illumination of the fluorescent biomarker in green revealed that the adult mouse brain could be infected by Zika. Credit: Cell Stem Cell

Illumination of the fluorescent biomarker in green revealed that the adult mouse brain could be infected by Zika. Credit: Cell Stem Cell

New research on mice suggests the Zika virus can infect and destroy certain brain cells in the adult brain, as well. Up until now, it was believed the most vulnerable group were pregnant women because the virus crosses over to the placenta where it kills developing brain cells, shrinking the baby brain’s volume and ultimately leading to the dreaded abnormally underdeveloped infant heads we’ve all seen.

The study performed by researchers at The Rockefeller University and La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology suggests Zika could be a lot more sly than we’ve let on so far. The fact that it might affect adult brain cells, not just those of fetuses, warrants serious scrutiny in the following months. There are tens of thousands of reported cases in Latin America while more than 60 countries have reported travel-related transmissions. In Florida, US, 440 people have been diagnosed with travel-related Zika and another 30 contracted the virus locally during this outbreak.

“This is the first study looking at the effect of Zika infection on the adult brain,” says Joseph Gleeson, adjunct professor at Rockefeller, head of the Laboratory of Pediatric Brain Disease, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “Based on our findings, getting infected with Zika as an adult may not be as innocuous as people think.”


The brain’s stem cells

Before the brain fully develops in specialized regions, a fetus’ brain is entirely made of neural progenitor cells, a sort of brain stem cells. In time, these cells develop into what they’re coded to do: neurons, glial cells etc. Once a baby is born and up until adulthood, the brain will contain progenitor cells and their role is critical. Neurons constantly die throughout our lives and when this happens, some of them are replaced by new ones developed from the progenitor cells that are always on standby.

Now, researchers at Rockefeller claim neural progenitor cells are targeted by Zika infections which would serve to explain microcephaly, a developmental condition which leads to smaller-than-normal heads, as well as other disabilities.

The team identified two primary regions in the brain whose neural progenitor cells are targeted by Zika: the subventricular zone of the anterior forebrain and the subgranular zone of the hippocampus — both vital for memory and learning. In a mouse model engineered by Gleeson’s team to mimic the Zika response in humans, researchers found adult neural progenitor cells could indeed become infected.

“Our results are pretty dramatic–in the parts of the brain that lit up, it was like a Christmas tree,” says Gleeson. “It was very clear that the virus wasn’t affecting the whole brain evenly, like people are seeing in the fetus. In the adult, it’s only these two populations that are very specific to the stem cells that are affected by virus. These cells are special, and somehow very susceptible to the infection.”

“Zika can clearly enter the brain of adults and can wreak havoc,” says Sujan Shresta, a professor at the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology. “But it’s a complex disease–it’s catastrophic for early brain development, yet the majority of adults who are infected with Zika rarely show detectable symptoms. Its effect on the adult brain may be more subtle, and now we know what to look for.”

In the infected brain regions, the researchers found evidence of cell death and reduced regeneration of new ones. It may be possible that some infected Zika adults could experience cognitive decline and, in extreme cases, neuropathological conditions like depression or Alzheimer’s. In healthy humans, the immune system ought to keep Zika from attacking brain cells, researchers report in Cell Stem Cell. Those with a weakened immune response stand at risk, though.

Aedes aegypti, one of the mosquitoes transmitting the disease. Credit; WHO

More research will be needed before we can piece together the Zika puzzle, which now proves to be a lot more complex than we hoped. Maybe the mouse model isn’t translatable to humans. Maybe it is.

“The virus seems to be traveling quite a bit as people move around the world,” says Gleeson. “Given this study, I think the public health enterprise should consider monitoring for Zika infections in all groups, not just pregnant women.”


zika vaccine

First human trials for a Zika vaccine to begin shortly

zika vaccine

Credit: DPC

Some eighty American volunteers will be given a pilot Zika vaccine to test its safety and efficacy, as part of the first clinical trial of the sort. Scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) hope to return with results by the end of the year.

The past 12 months have been critical as governmental agencies and scientific bodies around the world struggled to contain the Zika virus outbreak in South America. Some have even gone as far as calling for the postponing of Rio Olympics, claiming the event risks turning the Zika outbreak from a regional crisis into a planetary pandemic — the World Health Organization (WHO) rejected this appeal, however.

On the bright side, the scale of international collaboration among scientists, in particular, has been almost unprecedented, and results were quick to show. We now know how the virus looks like in 3-D, or how it crosses from the mother to the fetus by hiding in immune cells, ultimately causing those dreadful deformities (microcephaly). Some potential cures have also been identified, like the interferon-induced protein 3 (IFITM3).

[panel style=”panel-danger” title=”Zika at a glance” footer=””]Zika is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys through a monitoring network of sylvatic yellow fever. It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

  • Zika virus disease is caused by a virus transmitted primarily by Aedes mosquitoes.
  • People infected with the Zika virus can have symptoms that include mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headache. These symptoms normally last for 2-7 days.
  • There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available.
  • The best form of prevention is protection against mosquito bites.
  • Zika virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus during pregnancy or at delivery. The babies can be born with microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly.


Soon, the NIAID will begin the first Zika vaccine clinical trial on 80 people in the U.S. ages 18 to 35. If these vaccines are proven safe and boost the immune system against the virus, a Phase 2 trial will be programmed in early 2017.

“NIAID has worked rapidly to accelerate the process,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID. “If we get a good immune response from the vaccine and there are no safety red flags … we should know if it’s OK to move on to Phase 2,” Fauci added.

The vaccine is allegedly made of a circular piece of DNA called a plasmid — genes that code Zika virus proteins. This sort of vaccine is known as a DNA vaccine, a variety which has successfully tackled previous outbreaks such as the West Nile virus.

All participants will get at least one dose of the vaccine, while some will receive as many as three spaced over a couple of weeks. It’s worth noting that the DNA vaccine will be given using a needle-free jet injector, a device which fires a high-pressure stream of fluid straight in the muscle.

If trial 1 and the upcoming trial 2 are deemed successful, it will still take a few years before a Zika vaccine will be available to the public. Until that happens, containment is the keyword, and in the United States, at least, that means more cash from Congress. The Washington Times reports that the “National Institutes of Health will by Aug. 31 exhaust its $47 million share of $374 million that had been redirected to the domestic Zika response” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “has spent more than half of the $222 million it received to protect U.S. shores from the virus.” The rest of the CDC’s Zika budget should run out by September 30.

The Zika virus might have reached the U.S., Florida governor warns

The Zika virus has been transmitted from mosquito to human for the first time on United State soil, according to Florida Governor Rick Scott. He confirmed four cases under investigation in his state were not brought in from outside the country.

The Zika virus envelope model.
Image credits Manuel Almagro Rivas / Wikimedia.

These cases are “the result of local transmission” in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, and are “likely mosquito-borne” the Florida Department of Health announced. This would mark the first time Zika has been transmitter by mosquito bite in the U.S. Should the virus get a foothold in southern Florida, containing it might become difficult, if not impossible.

However, health officials haven’t yet ruled out the possibility that the virus has spread by sexual contact and have yet to locate the carrier mosquitoes.

“If transmitted by mosquito, this would be the first instance in the United States”

The FDA put a hold on blood donations in both counties until proper screening protocols can be set in place, and has blood donors in other areas who have visited the two counties screened to prevent the virus from contaminating blood banks.

Since the Zika outbreak began in Brazil in April 2015, the virus has spread throughout large areas of Latin and Central America with tragic consequences. At best, it can cause mild symptoms such as fever, joint pain, and rashes. Zika however has also been linked to Guillain–Barré syndrome, a severe neurological disorder that can lead to paralysis and death.

It can cause infected mothers to give birth to offspring with microcephaly, a deadly condition that affects the child’s brain development, The CDC has issued warnings to pregnant women traveling in regions where the outbreak is currently ongoing. In the US, babies were born with birth defects due to  mothers who had traveled to Zika-affected countries contacting the virus.

Need to ward off pesky mosquitoes? Sleep with a chicken over your head

A new study found that a weapon against mosquitoes could be forged from the unlikeliest of sources: the humble chicken. The findings suggest that these insects find fowl smell quite foul, a potential starting point for new repellents to be used against them.

Want to ward off malaria, or the Zika outbreak? Sleep with a chicken over your head.

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?
Image credits lushtk0/pixabay

By this point some of you are no doubt skeptical — and I can’t blame you. That sounds more like the ramblings of a witch in a medieval village than sound medial advice. But surprisingly enough, a study by Swedish and Ethiopian scientists found that mosquitoes avoid homes which contained a live chicken suspended in a cage. Interestingly enough, they don’t even have to see the chicken — one whiff of the birds’ smell is enough to make them turn tail and run.

“We were surprised to find that malaria mosquitoes are repelled by the odors emitted by chickens,” said Professor Richard Ignell, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

“This study shows for the first time that malaria mosquitoes actively avoid feeding on certain animal species, and that this behavior is regulated through odor cues.”

The researchers suspect that mosquitoes have evolved to avoid chickens because these birds pray on them, and their blood isn’t nutritious enough to justify the risk of biting them. They instinctively avoid the fowl’s “odor bubble,” no matter how hungry. The researchers found that most mosquitoes won’t even enter a house with a chicken in it, let alone a single room. Just in case sleeping with chickens caged above your face isn’t your thing (but let’s be honest, how could it not?) they’ve isolated the chemical compounds that scare off the mosquitoes and are now planning to develop them into a repellent.

“The difference between this repellent and ones on the market is it acts on a very large scale. Most repellents only work after a mosquito lands on you but we know that this can cut populations by up to 95 per cent throughout an entire house, so it’s very efficient,” Ignell added.

“[The repellent] really creates an odour bubble which stops the mosquitos coming near, so it can stop the spread of malaria.”

This has the potential to be huge. Mosquitoes are responsible for spreading terrible diseases such as malaria and the Zika virus, which causes mothers to give births to children with drastic abnormalities, such as microcephaly. Zika was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation earlier this year and more than 50 countries have confirmed outbreaks. Finding an efficient way to protect people from mosquito bites and the spread of these diseases could save some of the 3.2 billion people at risk of malaria.

“People in sub-Saharan Africa have suffered considerably under the burden of malaria over an extended period of time and mosquitoes are becoming increasingly physiologically resistant to pesticides, while also changing their feeding habits for example by moving from indoors to outdoors.

“For this reason there is a need to develop novel control methods. In our study, we have been able to identify a number of natural odour compounds which could repel host-seeking malaria mosquitoes and prevent them from getting in contact with people.”

For the study, the researchers collected data on the population of human and domestic animals in three Ethiopian villages, with help from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. In these areas, people still share their living space with livestock, and the researchers found that Anopheles arabiensis, one of the prime transmitters of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, avoids chickens both inside and outdoors.

The team determined which chemical compounds were present only in chicken feathers and then tested them by placing samples in traps in 11 homesteads. A single volunteer aged between 27 and 36 years slept in each of the houses under an untreated bed net – and traps were positioned in the room to count the number of mosquitoes that flew in. Significantly fewer mosquitoes were caught in traps baited with chicken compounds than in control traps. Volunteers also slept in mosquito-net covered beds (just to make sure they weren’t bit) but found that suspending a chicken outside the bed sent the insects running.

Volunteers slept in beds surrounded by mosquito nets. They found that the insects steered clear of their room when a cage containing a live chicken (pictured right), or its feathers, was suspended outside the bed. A control experiment set-up is shown left.
Image provided by authors / Jaleta et al, Malaria Journal

The main mosquito species that transmits Zika is Aedes aegypti and laboratory tests have shown that it much prefers feeding on humans and dogs, although will occasionally bite chickens if they are restrained. Asked if the repellent could work to prevent Zika, Ignell said:

“I think it should. We haven’t tested it on other mosquitos but there are lots of varieties which won’t feed on chickens and so would be repelled.”

The full paper, titled “Chicken volatiles repel host-seeking malaria mosquitoes” has been published online in the Malaria Journal.

The $2 testing device, about the size of a soda can, does not require electricity or technical expertise to use. Credits: University of Pennsylvania.

Penn engineers develop $2 portable Zika test

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have developed a cheap and quick test for the Zika virus. The patient needs to provide only a saliva test which turns blue in the presence of the virus — and it only costs $2.

The $2 testing device, about the size of a soda can, does not require electricity or technical expertise to use. Credits: University of Pennsylvania.

The $2 testing device, about the size of a soda can, does not require electricity or technical expertise to use. Credits: University of Pennsylvania.

Rapid, accurate diagnosis of Zika is vital, especially for pregnant women. While the disease is not typically life-threatening for adults, it can cause microcephaly (underdevelopment of the brain and head) and other devastating birth defects. It is estimated that 1.5 million people have been infected by Zika in Brazil, with over 3,500 cases of microcephaly reported between October 2015 and January 2016.

Having a test which could quickly identify the disease is no easy feat. The genetic material from the Zika itself is considered the golden standard for disease detection because other, indirect methods (like detecting Zika-fighting antibodies) can create false positives from people who are infected but haven’t yet produced enough antibodies, or false positives from people who have antibodies for a different disease that is similar enough to trigger the test. But genetic tests are generally time-consuming and require specific lab equipment (which also costs a lot).

“The CDC has approved, on an emergency basis, only these kinds of laboratory-based molecular tests for the Zika virus,” said Research Assistant Professor Changchun Liu. “Generally, lateral flow tests, which directly change the color of a test strip based on the presence of Zika antibodies, suffer from low sensitivity. And since antibodies to the Zika virus cross-react with other similar viruses prevalent in Zika-endemic areas, lateral flow tests for Zika also suffer from low specificity.”

This is where this research steps in. They developed a procedure which provides a genetic test without requiring the very specific lab processes. Their solution involves a thermos bottle, a self-contained heating element that uses a chemical reaction from portable military rations and a wax-like material that absorbs excess heat by melting. A 3-D printed lid fits on top of the thermos and holds all of the test’s components in place.

“In parallel,” Liu said, “we engineered a low-cost, point-of-care system that consists of a diagnostic cassette and a processor. The cassette isolates, concentrates and purifies nucleic acids and carries out enzymatic amplification. The test results are indicated by the change in the color of a dye, which can be inspected visually.”

All you need to do is insert the saliva into the cartridge and wait for 40 minutes. So far, initial tests have proven to be very promising and researchers want to test them at a much greater scale.

“Our work represents a proof of concept at this stage,” said Professor Haim Bau of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Before the assay can be adapted for medical use, we must experiment with patients’ samples and make assure that our assay and system match the performance of the gold standard and operate reproducibly and reliably. We are fortunate to have dedicated colleagues in endemic regions ready to assist us in this task.”

As it stands at the moment, the virus has created an epidemic throughout South America, with no end in sight. The outbreak began in April 2015 in Brazil, and has spread to other countries in South America, Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In January 2016, the WHO said the virus was likely to spread throughout most of the Americas by the end of the year.

pregnant woman

Zika virus might cross from mother to fetus by hiding in immune cells

Thousands of pregnant women from South America are now infected with the Zika virus, which causes horrible skull and brain deformities in the babies. The situation is tense, and the concern is amplified because scientists still don’t know that much about this highly contagious virus. In the past couple of months, though, efforts have been drastically ramped. All Zika-related papers have been made open to facilitate and accelerate research, and thousands of scientists all over the world are collaborating to get to the bottom of things and hopefully find a vaccine.

pregnant woman

Credit: Pixabay

A massive breakthrough in the fight against the Zika virus was made by Emory University School of Medicine who recently report a possible mechanism for the viruses’ migration from mother to baby. If this route is indeed the right one, then there’s a good chance we can develop drugs that act like roadblocks, keeping the virus from infecting the fetus.

[panel style=”panel-danger” title=”Zika at a glance” footer=””]Zika virus is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys through a monitoring network of sylvatic yellow fever. It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

  • Zika virus disease is caused by a virus transmitted primarily by Aedesmosquitoes.
  • People with Zika virus disease can have symptoms that can include mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headache. These symptoms normally last for 2-7 days.
  • There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available.
  • The best form of prevention is protection against mosquito bites.
  • Zika virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus during pregnancy or at delivery. The babies can be born with  microcephaly,  a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly.


The Zika is a member of the flaviviruses, a group which includes dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever. All of these viruses are very rarely transmitted from mother to offspring — except for Zika. What makes it so special?

To investigate, the Emory University researchers infected healthy placentas which were donated by women who had a Cesarean section with Zika strain from Puerto Rico. Strikingly, they learned that the virus wasn’t killing Hofbauer cells. These cells are produced heavily when the body signals an infection and their job, being macrophages, is to swallow foreign bodies.

The Hofbauer cells, however, also have direct access to the fetal blood vessels. It seems that the Zika is basically infecting these cells which it uses to hide and cross into the fetus through the placenta.

[ALSO SEE] Why the Zika virus causes birth abnormalities 

This might explain why observational studies reported first and early second trimesters as the most vulnerable pregnancy phases. During these phases, the placenta is not developed enough and vulnerable to infections. Some donor cells were more susceptible than others, which might also explain why not all infected women pass on the virus to their babies.

“Our results substantiate the limited evidence from pathology case reports,” says senior author of the study Mehul Suthar, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.. “It was known that the virus was getting into the placenta. But little was known about where the virus was replicating and in what cell type.”

“Zika may be unique in its ability to infect placental cells and cross the placental barrier, in comparison with other flaviviruses,” Suthar says.

Suthar says that next scientists need to find which receptors allow the virus to enter Hofbauer cells. If we can block these receptors a potentially global crisis might be averted.


Rio Olympics could spark global health crisis

The 2016 Olympics in Rio are riddled with problems, one of them being a potentially global pandemic. Medical doctors are worried that the huge gathering could spark a massive Zika epidemic.

A young girl adds her signature in support of Rio de Janeiro’s candidacy to host the 2016 Olympic Games (January 2009).

Reminiscent of the 2014-2015 Ebola panic, news of the Zika epidemic has spread like wildfire through Brazil and most of South America. The virus, which was once a serious risk for expectant mothers in Brazil, may already be shaping up to be an “explosive pandemic”, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Reports of Zika outbreaks have increased at a staggering rate of 2500% from 2014 to 2016, leading the WHO to declare it a global public health emergency. Unlike Ebola, Zika has not been reported as deadly to infected persons. Neither does it remain in a person indefinitely. However, Zika is especially dangerous to pregnant women, being linked to a number of birth defects, including microcephaly.

Writing in the Harvard Public Health Review, Dr Amir Attaran warns that the Olympic Games could drastically speed up the spread of the virus, and suggested the Games could be hosted by another city in Brazil where the illness is less of a threat. He said:

“While Brazil’s Zika inevitably will spread globally, given enough time – viruses always do – it helps nobody to speed that up. In particular, it cannot possibly help when an estimated 500,000 foreign tourists flock into Rio for the Games, potentially becoming infected, and returning to their homes where both local Aedes mosquitoes and sexual transmission can establish new outbreaks.”

“All it takes is one infected traveller, a few viral introductions of that kind, in a few countries, or maybe continents, would make a full-blown global health disaster.”

Brazil is already facing an extremely volatile political situation which raises big question marks about the country’s capacity to host such a major event. In much of the country, environmental problems also plague the population, as a water crisis seems inevitable this summer and gang violence is ever on the rise. It seems like the perfect opportunity for the disease to spread. Hopefully, this won’t be the case.

Adult Aedes aegypti mosquito, a vector or carrier of the Zika virus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Will Zika Become the Next Ebola?

Reminiscent of the 2014-2015 Ebola panic, news of the Zika epidemic has spread like wildfire. The virus, which was once a serious risk for expectant mothers in Brazil, may be well an “explosive pandemic” deserving of international attention from the World Health Organization (WHO).

What is Zika?

Adult Aedes aegypti mosquito, a vector or carrier of the Zika virus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Adult Aedes aegypti mosquito, a vector or carrier of the Zika virus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A virus transmitted primarily by mosquitoes, Zika may cause the infected person to develop symptoms such as fever, headache, joint pain, rash or conjunctivitis. However, only roughly 20% of those with the Zika virus are symptomatic.

This low percentage of symptomatic carriers is linked to much of the threat from the virus, as it makes it especially hard to follow and detect.

“In many ways the Zika outbreak is worse than the Ebola epidemic of 2014-15…[because] most virus carriers are symptomless. It is a silent infection in a group of highly vulnerable individuals — pregnant women — that is associated with a horrible outcome for their babies,” said Wellcome Trust head Jeremy Farrar about the virus.

zika symptoms

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The primary concern of the Zika virus is that correlates to birth defects in babies born to affected mothers. While the link has not yet been proven, infected unborn babies are at high risk to develop microcephaly. Microcephaly is a sometimes fatal disease, in which the affected baby’s brain is smaller than average, with underdeveloped functioning.

In 2014, the Brazilian Ministry of Health reported that Brazil suffered fewer than 150 cases of microcephaly in infants. From October 2015 through January 2016, however, more than 4,700 cases in Brazil are suspected. In the past year, reports of Zika infections have occurred in 21 different countries.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

University of Texas Medical Branch scientists pilot the search for a cure to the virus, but no treatment has yet been discovered. A cure is of utmost necessity for those living in areas populated by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito. Developing a vaccine could take years, and testing it on pregnant women would make it an even higher-risk endeavor.

How does Zika spread?

Mosquitoes primarily transmit the Zika virus, and it’s mostly commonly been found in Brazil and equatorial climates.

A few cases have also documented sexual transmission of the virus. Experts recommend waiting to try to get pregnant for several weeks after returning from South or Central America. The delay is an extra precaution against having a baby with microcephaly.

The spread of the virus is limited by climate, by mode of transmission, by expiration of the virus in the blood of an affected person and by preventative measures the rest of the world can take in the meantime.

How does Zika compare to Ebola?

Unlike Ebola, Zika has not been reported as deadly to infected persons. Neither does it remain in a person indefinitely. So far, those infected with Zika appear to retain the virus in their blood for a week, and in semen for up to two weeks.

Reports of Zika outbreaks have increased at a staggering rate of 2500% from 2014 to 2016, however, leading the WHO to declare it a global public health emergency. The 4,700 reported cases of Zika in 2015-2016 still pale in comparison to the 11,000 deaths from Ebola in 2014-2015. The rate of increase may not bode well regarding the spread of Zika in the coming years, but fortunately the virus is not transmitted as easily person-to-person as Ebola.

How can you take precaution?

Pregnant women or those who may become pregnant are advised to steer clear of tropical countries. Couples are advised to wait one month before having unprotected sex after the man has been potentially exposed to the virus. Additional precautions include wearing bug repellant, emptying pools of standing water and covering up to prevent bites.

After a week of having the virus, infected persons should be fully recovered. However, many unknowns surround the disease — which is why exercising caution for a month following any travel to countries with reported Zika outbreaks is strongly recommended.

While the virus is spreading at an alarming rate, IFL Science writer Justine Alford also points out that infections will not always lead to an epidemic within a country or across the globe. Countries without carrier mosquitoes do not need to panic. However, prevention measures and additional studies are needed so that countries and organizations will be ready to react if the need arises.




Zika articles made open-source to accelerate research

Nature, the Lancet and many other medical publishers and researchers have announced that all Zika-related scientific articles will be published freely in the wake of the recent outbreak.

“We announce that Nature journals will make all papers relating to Zika virus free to access until further notice,” a statement reads. “Nature journals will also now encourage authors who haven’t already deposited their relevant sequence information in public archives to do so on submission to help drive the shift towards fast data sharing during public-health emergencies.”

The seemingly benign Zika virus that seemed to only cause mild symptoms turned out to be not so benign after all. Thousands of pregnant women infected with the virus gave birth to babies suffering from drastic abnormalities, especially microcephaly – a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development. The outbreak has reached pandemic levels in South America and threatens to spread more and further.

The thing is, we don’t know why or how Zika causes these conditions, nor any other potential effects; there is also no vaccine.

In order to hasten the process of developing methods of prevention and treatment, facilitating research is paramount, but unfortunately, scientific information is not always free. Access to journals can be really expensive, especially when you only want to access to a few very specific articles. In the face of crisis (at the very least), this information should flow freely.

“The arguments for sharing data, and the consequences of not doing so, have been thrown into stark relief by the Ebola and Zika outbreaks,” the statement continues.

“In the context of a public health emergency of international concern, there is an imperative on all parties to make any information available that might have value in combatting the crisis.”

The signatories will make all content concerning the Zika virus free to access (print and online) and encourage publishers to share any significant results as soon as possible.

Signatories to the Statement:

Academy of Medical Sciences, UK

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Canadian Institutes of Health Research

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Chinese Academy of Sciences

Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention

The Department of Biotechnology, Government of India

The Department for International Development (DFID)

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)



Foundation Meriuex

Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz)

The Institut Pasteur

Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED)

The JAMA Network

The Lancet

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders  (MSF)

National Academy of Medicine

National Institutes of Health, USA

National Science Foundation

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)


Science Journals

South African Medical Research Council

Springer Nature

UK Medical Research Council

Wellcome Trust

ZonMw – The Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development

Zika Virus spreads through South America: 2100 pregnant Colombians infected

A few days ago, the health minister in Colombia warned that the country is extremely vulnerable to the Zika virus that’s spreading like wildfire through South America. He was right, as it turns out. Over 2100 pregnant Colombian women are already infected, as Zika has already been confirmed in 23 countries and territories in the Americas – including the US.

Zika virus, related to Dengue and Yellow Fever is spread through mosquito bites. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes) – usually mild symptoms that don’t require hospitalization. However, pregnant women are extremely vulnerable to the disease.

In December 2015 when the disease began to spread massively in South America, medics started to suspect that the disease can cause microcephaly – an abnormally small development of the head (for babies). In December 2015, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control issued a comprehensive update, warning that Zika is associated with babies with birth defects and poor pregnancy outcomes. The U.S. CDC issued a similar warning, adding that we don’t know yet how many of the microcephaly cases are associated with infection:

“There have been reports of congenital microcephaly in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. Zika virus infections have been confirmed in several infants with microcephaly; it is not known how many of the microcephaly cases are associated with Zika virus infection.”

However, if possible – precautions should come first. Several governments have already warned women in infected countries to avoid, if possible, getting pregnant; even traveling (as a pregnant woman) to one of these countries. The Colombia government has urged women to delay getting pregnant at least by 6 weeks. Brazil is currently the worst hit country, with over 3,700 cases of microcephaly strongly suspected to be related to Zika.