Combating Zika Virus Requires Focus on Vaccines, Therapies, Mosquitoes, MU Experts Say

As many as 4 million people could be infected with the Zika virus by the end of the year, according to the World Health Organization. The Zika virus is transmitted by mosquito bites to people predominantly in Central and South America. Although the most typical symptoms of the virus are mild and similar to the flu, pregnant woman face more serious dangers: Cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that could causes a baby’s head to stop growing after birth, may be associated with the virus. University of Missouri researchers say a combination of different strategies is needed to fully tackle the mysteries of the Zika virus.

“Tackling mosquito-borne viruses requires focus on both humans and insects,” says Alexander Franz, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. “While my team is focused on the mosquitoes, other researchers are focused on creating vaccines and therapies for the people infected. Both approaches are needed to successfully stop the spread of the virus.”

Franz’s research is focused on genetically manipulating mosquitoes so they no longer support transmission of mosquito-borne viruses to humans.

“Finding a way to make mosquitoes resistant to the Zika virus could effectively interrupt the viral transmission cycle,” Franz says.

Previously, Franz’s research team successfully genetically manipulated mosquitoes to be resistant to the Dengue virus, another mosquito-borne virus affecting people in the tropics. Franz said his success generating stable resistance to the Dengue virus in mosquitoes could help him tackle the Zika virus.

While Franz’s concern is Zika’s relationship to mosquitoes, Daniel Jackson, MD, a maternal and fetal medicine specialist at MU Health Care and assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at the MU School of Medicine, is concerned with the potential connection of the Zika virus to microcephaly, a permanent birth defect that can cause babies to have lifelong problems hearing, seeing, learning and developing.

“There is a lot we still don’t know right now about the relation of Zika and microcephaly,” Jackson says. “However, there have been several cases of microcephaly identified in babies also infected with the Zika virus. I advise pregnant women, or women considering pregnancy, to avoid traveling to countries affected by the virus until more research is done.”

Jackson said it is important for expecting mothers to know that having the Zika virus does not guarantee their children will have microcephaly. He said much is still unknown about how strong the association is between the virus and microcephaly, and the likelihood of getting microcephaly if infected with the Zika virus.

In addition, Jackson said if travel is unavoidable for pregnant women, they should use precautions to minimize the risks of getting bit by mosquitoes such as using repellants and wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants. Jackson also said pregnant women who plan on traveling to affected countries should get blood tests done soon after they return home to see if they have been exposed to the virus.

Overall, both Jackson and Franz believe it will require an integrated approach to answer all the unknown questions about the Zika virus.

Source: University of Missouri Health