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Q&A: UA expert talks Zika virus and its threat to Arizona

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Amy Davis and Amy Davis | The Daily Wildcat Technician Ce Zhang gets ready to examine a six-well plate containing pluripotent stem cell colonies under a microscope at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering in Baltimore, Maryland on Tuesday, March 1. The Zika virus has been making headlines again this week, this time in Maricopa County.

The Zika virus made headlines again this week as lawmakers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began making announcements that the virus may be more severe than first thought.

U.S. lawmakers approved a bill on Tuesday that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest described as “two months late and $1.9 billion short.”

The bill will provide financial incentives for companies to develop drugs and vaccines against the virus.

Wednesday brought an announcement from the CDC: They deemed the Zika virus responsible for serious birth defects such as microcephaly, a condition where improper brain development results in a baby being born with an abnormally small head.

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“Never before in history has there been a situation where a bite from a mosquito can result in a devastating malformation,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director for the CDC, told the New York Times on Wednesday.

Arizona saw its first confirmed case of the virus in March, when a woman from Maricopa County, who had recently traveled abroad, contracted the virus.

“While this is a first, the risk of this virus spreading throughout Arizona is very low,” said Cara Christ, director for the Arizona Department of Health Services. “Arizona’s public health system has a plan in place and we are ready to rapidly respond.”

To gain more insight on the latest information regarding the threat of the Zika virus, the Daily Wildcat interviewed Kacey Ernst, a UA epidemiology professor who is currently in Jamaica working to develop clinical research studies for the Zika virus with the Jamaica Ministry of Health.

The Daily Wildcat: U.S. health officials have stated that the Zika virus is now “scarier than we thought.” What has changed in recent months that have led them to believe so?

Kacey Ernst: As transmission continues and cases build, more neurological outcomes are being identified as potential complications of infection with Zika virus. Most recently, patients with Zika virus infection were subsequently diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, or ADEM, a condition that presents very much like multiple sclerosis. … It should be kept in mind, however, that other infections can also cause these conditions. For example, microcephaly can be caused by infection with rubella, chickenpox and cytomegalovirus.

Does the Zika virus specifically attack cells of the nervous system?

Yes, research suggests that [the] Zika virus can proliferate in neural stem cells. A recent study in Science indicates that the virus has a particular affinity for neural progenitor cells and essentially takes over the cell, using it to replicate the virus and eventually kills the cell. This is one of the reasons why it is thought it might lead to microcephaly.

Congress sent a bill on Tuesday described as a “small step,” to President [Barack] Obama, that would allow for financial incentives for companies fighting the virus. What are your thoughts on this bill? Is it sufficient? If not, what would you have liked to see included?

The bill will actually grant drug companies who invest in developing treatments or vaccines for Zika a voucher for expediting review of a more profitable drug by the [Food and Drug Administration]. It does not actually provide direct funding to companies. I would agree that this is a small step forward, but it joins several other small steps, including prioritization of Zika virus research for funding from the [National Institute of Health] and [National Science Foundation]. Of course, anyone who is concerned about the pandemic would like to see more direct funding for prevention and control of further spread [as well as] the development of vaccines and treatments and support for countries with high burdens of disease. In addition, more upstream investment in infrastructure and development would help address not only Zika virus transmission but other global health threats.

In late March, Arizona saw it’s first confirmed case of the Zika virus. What is the current threat to residents? Should we be taking preventative steps, such as using mosquito repellant, in our homes?

Yes, in late March we joined a growing number of states that have confirmed Zika virus in a returned traveler. It is important to understand that this individual was not exposed to the virus in Arizona and currently the density of [Aedes] aegypti, the primary vector of Zika virus, is low. It peaks in Arizona following the monsoon season. There are basic things that one can do, including making sure standing water is removed or covered (in the case of rain water harvesting and other more permanent water sources). This includes vases, pet water bowls and other things that might be inside your house. In addition, offer to help out those neighbors who might not be able to remove their own standing water. In a survey we conducted in Tucson, physical limitations were one of the most common reasons cited that prevented them from taking that action. Other key things are to wear repellent when outdoors, making sure your windows are screened and clearing your yard of containers. Maybe even get a group together to tackle that empty lot down the street.

What is your role in Jamaica dealing with the Zika virus? How are you working with the [Jamaica Ministry of Health] to combat the virus and how did you get involved in Jamaica in the first place?

I have been coming to Jamaica to teach at the University of [the] West Indies in their MSc [sic] degree program in epidemiology for a number of years now. We actually originally got a group together from the Ministry and UWI to develop a research plan following the chikungunya outbreak that swept the island in 2014. Chikungunya is another virus transmitted by the same mosquitoes as Zika virus. Two years ago, it was considered one of the most significant infectious disease threats. Almost everyone I have spoken to while I have been here this week had chikungunya during that outbreak. ... During the conversations about chikungunya, the Zika virus was identified as a threat in Brazil and we are working to develop clinical research studies here.


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Updated September 21, 2021