By Benjamin Kweskin
Just as dengue and Ebola evoke fear and anxiety, Zika is the latest virus to cause international panic.
While most of the affected people are in Brazil, where the mosquito-transmitted virus has infected more than 1 million people the past two years, several hundred U.S. cases have been confirmed in recent months. When it infects pregnant women, the virus can cause microcephaly in babies, though reported cases are rare.
Emory University hosted a “Bridging the Sciences” conference on Zika from May 1 to 3 to educate immunologists, embryologists, epidemiologists, obstetricians, virologists, nurses and other professionals who study and manage Zika on the biology of the virus and practical management of the infection.
The conference closed with a panel organized for the media to share updates from experts José Esparza, Mauro Teixeira and Glaucius Oliva of Brazil and Scott Weaver and Raymond Schinazi of the United States.
Moderator Schinazi said that educating the public is of primary importance right now, especially because most problem areas related to Zika are inside people’s homes. He said the major concern is for high-risk people, including women — particularly those who are pregnant — and children.
Weaver said poorer communities lack needed resources, exacerbating the Zika problem. He said the risk of Zika outbreaks will increase in the coming weeks as summer brings more heat and humidity, so people should protect themselves accordingly.
People must take responsibility for their areas and be proactive, Weaver said. For example, if you have potential mosquito breeding areas on your property, such as a fountain or pond outside or damp areas inside your home, you should take action immediately for the health of yourself, your family and your neighbors.
Esparza said many unknowns about Zika remain, and the U.S. and other governments have tried not to overreact to the experience in Brazil because scientists don’t yet know how to stop the virus.
Scientists and doctors began studying this iteration of Zika only a couple of years ago (the original strain is thought to have been discovered in the late 1940s in East Africa), Oliva said, and it is not known how much the virus has mutated, what long-term effects it may have on people, and why some may be immune.
Oliva said the international community has collaborated from the beginning and is tirelessly working to learn more, although at this early stage Zika produces more questions than answers.
Comparing Zika with AIDS, Teixeira said: “It took years for AIDS research to get to where it is now, and controlling mosquitos is certainly not easy at all.”
The panelists agreed that the technical response from the Brazilian government has been good and that the U.S. government needs a similar response before the situation worsens nationwide. Schinazi and other panelists acknowledged that the U.S. scientific community is waiting on government money, but even though Brazil is undergoing a financial and political crisis, it is coping as well as it can.
Schinazi, who won the Tom Glaser Leadership Award from Conexx at last year’s Eagle Star Awards, said all governments have tended to be “reactive vs. proactive,” and concerted local as well as global efforts are need to focus on research, training and education.
Oliva said Zika research must stand on three legs: diagnostics; drugs (perhaps repurposing old ones); and vaccines, an area that yields many challenges because so much has to be learned.
While there is recognition of a severe situation in Brazil, the picture in the United States is unclear. Weaver said some infected people who have no symptoms could unknowingly transmit Zika to others sexually or otherwise. He suggested that people wear mosquito repellent and long sleeves to decrease the possibility of being bitten, but he also reminded the audience that most people who have been infected survive if they are not at high risk.
Based on the current data, Schinazi said, it appears that once infected, a person cannot become infected again, which is not the case with dengue.
Weaver said that while Zika will remain in North and South America for the foreseeable future, the top medical objective is to have enough people develop an immunity, then eventually to vaccinate those in need.