UNL to research Zika Virus

Published: Feb. 4, 2016 at 9:22 PM CST
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The Zika Virus has been around since the 1940s, generally in Africa, but it has not been studied in depth. Now though, researchers are hitting the ground running as the virus has spread like wildfire through areas in South and Latin America, and over the last several weeks, multiple cases have been reported in the United States. Here in Nebraska, there are two confirmed cases, one in Sarpy County and the other in Douglas County.

Dr. Asit Pattnaik with the Nebraska Center for Virology says, "It became an issue in the middle of the year, 2015, and since then we've been seeing all these cases of virus outbreak in the population."

Zika virus isn't deadly in and of itself, in fact, only 1 in 5 people who have the virus will become ill. Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache. The CDC is unsure of the incubation period, but say that it's likely a few days to a week.

While not deadly itself, researchers are looking into the link between the Zika Virus and microcephaly, a birth defect that causes children to be born with abnormally small craniums and under developed brains. Dr. Pattnaik says there is strong circumstantial evidence that this is the case. In Brazil, where there are over 1.5 million cases of Zika virus, there have been 4,000 cases of microcephaly with woman who contracted the virus in early pregnancy.

"...we do not know so much about this virus, it is important to have everything in place in case something serious happens that we have the right anti-virals, the right vaccines to take care of this." said Pattnaik.

Daniel Brooks, a parasitologist at UNL said, "It's analagous to the situation with reubella, or what we used to call German measles back in my day, where it seemed to be a much more mild disease than measle or mumps, but then we discovered that it caused tremondous problems in early pregnancy." He also adds that he thinks Zika could have the same global impact economically that HIV has had.

The Nebraska Center for Virology will be studying the virus soon. Dr. Pattnaik says the center will be receiving several samples of the virus from the CDC with hopes to eventually develop a vaccine or anti-viral, although he says it will likely be several years before any vaccine or anti-viral is developed. He says the most common way to contract the virus is through a mosquito bite, but there is a case in Dallas, Texas where the virus was transmitted through sexual activity. Pattnaik adds that blood transfusions are another way to contract the disease.

All the known cases in the United States, except for one, were contracted by people who visited countries where the Zika Virus is present. Daniel Brooks says that if you do travel to those countries you should wear the strongest possible bug spray and avoid areas of standing water where mosquitoes thrive. He also says that if you're planning or already trying to have a baby, that both partners should be tested for the Zika Virus just to be safe.