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What is Zika Virus Disease?
Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease that is a member of the flavivirus group. This group includes several other viruses that cause serious, sometimes life-threatening diseases such as yellow fever, dengue fever, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis.
Zika virus has been known for decades to circulate in Africa and Asia and more recently in the Pacific Islands, but very few cases of human disease were documented before 2007. In May of 2015, the first infections were confirmed in Brazil. Since then, the Brazilian government estimates that more than 1.5 million people have been infected with Zika virus. Zika is now confirmed to be circulating in several countries and territories in the Americas including Mexico and is probably present in even more. The list of countries where Zika virus has been identified can change with new cases identified.
Cases have been reported in people who have recently traveled to an affected region. Given the widespread recent outbreaks and spring vacation travel season, more Americans will likely contract Zika virus disease in this way.
It is likely that cases of Zika virus disease will occur in regions of the US inhabited by the mosquito believed to be responsible for spreading the virus in most parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Aedes aegypti. The southern US is infested with this mosquito and therefore is at risk for local transmission of Zika virus disease in a manner similar to dengue and chikungunya viruses. Aedes albopictus has also been implicated in Zika virus transmission in Africa and occurs further north in the eastern US.
What are the symptoms of Zika virus?
In children and adults, Zika virus infection is generally mild - some develop flu-like symptoms, joint pain, eye inflammation and red rashes, while other people may not have any symptoms. In some cases, infection is associated with serious complications, including Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder where the immune system attacks the peripheral nerves and eventually causes paralysis. There is currently no vaccine to prevent Zika virus disease nor are there any treatments to resolve disease symptoms.
Concerning the possibility of the Zika virus being transmitted in semen, a few suspected cases have been identified but it remains unclear how often this occurs or how long the virus persists in infected men.
What is the link between Zika virus and microcephaly?
Microcephaly is a neurological condition where a baby is born with an abnormally small head because its brain did not develop correctly. These children almost always have lifelong mental retardation and many die young.
There have been reports in Brazil of microcephaly in babies of mothers who had been exposed to the Zika virus, and Zika virus has been detected in the amniotic fluid and tissues of several fetuses. However, more research is needed to confirm the causal link. Nonetheless, the CDC suggests that pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to regions where the Zika virus is active. And women trying to become pregnant should consult with their doctor or health care provider before travel to those regions.
So far, the majority of babies born with microcephaly cases have not been confirmed with laboratory tests to be linked with Zika. Therefore, in most cases experts cannot say for sure with certainty that this condition was caused by the virus. More definitive case-control and prospective cohort epidemiological studies are underway to provide more definitive information.
However, the overall evidence that Zika is responsible for the vast majority of these cases is strengthening:
- Between 2010 and 2014 in Brazil, 139-175 babies were born with microcephaly each year. In 2015, there were more than 3,500 cases of this disease, coincident with the arrival of Zika virus.
- The Zika virus has been found in the placenta of a few babies born with microcephaly, which has prompted Brazilian doctors to warn women not to become pregnant if possible, for the time being. Some of the hardest hit areas have declared a state of emergency.
- The virus's genetic material (RNA) has been detected in the tissues of some of the babies with microcephaly whose mothers were confirmed to have Zika during pregnancy.
- The CDC has identified the Zika virus in the tissues of babies who died from Brazil from microcephaly.
What is recommended for pregnant women at risk of Zika?
Women who are pregnant or are considering becoming pregnant should talk to their obstetrician and make sure they are familiar with the latest guidance from the CDC. This is particularly important if there has been recent travel to countries affected by Zika virus. Keep in mind that the virus is spreading rapidly so the list of countries affected may not reflect the current distribution due to the inherent lag in diagnostic testing and reporting.
You can find CDC guidance for pregnant women here.
Click here for the CDC's current information on travel to affected countries.
What can people do to minimize their risk of becoming infected with Zika virus?
Currently no vaccine exists to prevent Zika virus disease. The best prevention is avoiding mosquito bites. If you or someone you know plans on traveling to countries where Zika virus (see map) or other viruses spread by mosquitoes are found, take the following steps:
- Use insect repellents
- When used as directed, insect repellents are safe and effective for everyone, including pregnant and nursing women.
- Most insect repellents can be used on children in proper concentrations. Do not use products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus in children under the age of three years.
- Repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and some oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products provide long lasting protection.
- If you use both sunscreen and insect repellent, apply the sunscreen first and then the repellent.
- Do not spray insect repellent on the skin under your clothing
- Treat clothing with permethrin or purchase permethrin-impregnated clothing.
- Always follow the label instructions when using insect repellent or sunscreen and especially note recommendations for use on children.
- When weather permits, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Use air conditioning or window/door screens to keep mosquitoes out of your home, hotel room or place of work. Remember that the mosquitoes believed to transmit Zika virus bite during the daytime as well as early morning and evening.
- Help reduce the number of mosquitoes inside and outside your home or hotel room by emptying standing water from containers such as flowerpots or buckets.
- If you live in areas inhabited by A. aegypti or A. albopictus, eliminate sources of standing water near your home to reduce populations of these mosquitoes and lower the risk of local Zika virus circulation if you or another traveler returns infected.
UTMB Zika experts:
Scott Weaver, globally recognized for his expertise in mosquito-borne diseases, is the director of the UTMB Institute for Human Infections and Immunity and scientific director of the Galveston National Laboratory. His work has been widely published and he holds nine patents in vaccine development.
Weaver was presented the 2014 Walter Reed Medal in recognition of his distinguished accomplishments in the field of tropical medicine, especially in understanding the emergence of mosquito-borne viral diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
He is the co-chairman for the Global Virus Network's Chikungunya Task Force, which formed to speed the process to creating vaccines and much-needed diagnostic tools for this virus, as well as to advocate for research efforts.
Pei-Yong Shi is the I.H. Kempner Professor of Human Genetics at UTMB and is an adjunct professor of emerging infectious diseases at the Duke - NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore. Shi came to UTMB after spending seven years serving as the Dengue Head Unit and Executive Director to lead drug discovery at the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases.
Shi is internationally renowned for his work on flaviviruses that integrates both his academic and industrial expertise.
Shi and his team discovered a new approach to developing vaccines for flaviviruses, including Zika, which employs a certain type of mutant virus. The mutant virus-based vaccine is similar enough to the parent virus that when the vaccine is given to a person, they will develop immunity to the disease without ever developing the disease itself. These vaccines are currently under development and are not yet available to the public.
Nikos Vasilakis is an associate professor in the UTMB department of pathology. He has extensive experience in mosquito-borne disease vaccine development, genetics and evolution. Vasilakis spent several years directing and coordinating research programs while at Wyeth Vaccine Research, giving him a deep understanding of both academic preclinical and pharmaceutical perspectives.
Vasilakis and his laboratory are studying the evolution and pathogenesis of arthropod-borne viruses, virus-mosquito and virus-host interactions using sylvatic dengue as a model, for which a study has been developed with Malaysian collaborators in Borneo. Additionally, as part of the World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses, he utilizes Next Generation Sequencing to discover, characterize and annotate new and novel viruses that could lead to the development of successful countermeasures for a number of veterinary and human diseases which is quite useful when a virus is establishing itself in a new environment as Zika is doing in the Americas.
In December 2015 at the behest of FioCruz of the Brazilian state of Bahia, Vasilakis and his colleague Shannan Rossi travelled to Salvador, Brazil to set up improved diagnostics for Zika, chikungunya and dengue in collaboration with the the FioCruz Foundation. While there, they had the opportunity to visit affected areas in poor regions and the Geral Roberto Santos Hospital where our collaborators have established a cohort of infant microcephaly.
Zika Virus Disease - Full Video
Weaver presents an overview of the current outbreak - Media Clips
How to Protect Against Zika
How UTMB is Working to Understand and Eliminate Zika
World Class Research Centers
UTMB's infectious disease research is coordinated through the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity, home to more than 120 faculty actively engaged in research. The IHII's premiere research facility is the Galveston National Laboratory, which includes the largest fully operational Biosafety Level Four laboratory on an academic campus in the U.S.
UTMB is home to The World Reference Center for Emerging Viruses and Arboviruses, a collection of more than 6,000 virus strains that accepts any virus suspected of being transmitted by animals or insects for identification and characterization. Most of the existing samples of Zika virus globally are housed in this Reference Center. A number of visiting scientists each year spend time in the Reference Center, learning classical and serologic techniques as well as newer molecular methods for mosquito-borne virus identification and testing.
The IHII includes the Sealy Center for Vaccine Development, one of the most comprehensive vaccine development centers in the world, whose researchers are investigating new ways to treat infectious diseases of every type, from new strains of influenza to emerging diseases from every corner of the globe.
UTMB has been designated a World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Vaccine Research, only the second in the Western Hemisphere.
UTMB is also home to the National Biocontainment Training Center, which is dedicated to preparing the worldwide community of infectious disease scientists to work safely in high-containment research laboratories. This unique training opportunity is unmatched nationally or internationally and fills a critical role in the development and training of a cadre of skilled scientists, engineers and staff dedicated to combatting the infectious diseases affecting global health.
Selected News Highlights:
- The Washington Post, September 21, 2015: Bumpy rash, achy joints, inflamed eyes? There's a new disease in town
- Houston Chronicle, September 22, 2015: That little rash you have? Let's hope its not Zika fever
- Scientific American, October 8, 2015: Zika disease: another reason to hate mosquitoes
- Genetic Expert News Service, December 9, 2016: What do we know about the Zika virus and birth defects?
- Outbreak News, December 21, 2015: Zika virus and chagas disease: interviews with the experts
- The New York Times, December 28, 2015: Zika virus, a mosquito-borne infection, may threaten Brazil?
- The New York Times, January 4, 2016: U.S. becomes more vulnerable to tropical diseases like Zika
- Vox, January 5, 2016: The Zika virus may cause birth defects - and experts think it's coming to the U.S.
- Houston Chronicle, Yahoo! Finance US, India, Singapore and UK, Business Insider India, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and UK, January 5, 2016: A little-known, untreatable virus is quickly spreading across the Americas
- Scientific American, January 6, 2016: What's behind Brazil's alarming surge in babies born with small heads
- CTV (Canada), January 6, 2016: Zika virus could reach U.S.
- MSN, MSN Australia and Philippines, January 6, 2016: Zika virus outbreak: brain-shrinking disease could spread to US
- Wired, January 6, 2016: Mosquitoes are spreading a rare virus around the world
- PBS News Hour, January 6, 2016: El Nino could erode the invisible barrier protecting the U.S. from tropical disease
- Latin Post, January 6, 2016: Brazil declares state of emergency amid widespread of Zika virus
- Web MD, January 7, 2016: Zika virus: what you should know
- Houston Chronicle, January 8, 2016: A little-known, untreatable virus is quickly spreading across the Americas
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 10, 2016: Zika is latest mosquito-borne virus knocking on Texas door
- Houston Chronicle, January 11, 2016 Virus linked to birth defects emerges in Harris County
- KTRK, Ch. 13 ABC Houston, January 11, 2016: Zika virus in Harris County
- NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth, January 11, 2016: Zika virus could soon make its way to Texas
- Orange County Register, January 11, 2016: Tropical mosquito could carry new threat to California
- Business Insider, January 12, 2016: Zika virus in US
- Tech Times, January 12, 2016: US faces new health threat from tropical mosquitoes: what to do to prevent mosquito bites
- Time Magazine, January 13, 2016: Why you can get so many diseases from mosquitoes
- The Guardian, January 13, 2016: First case of tropical zika virus linked to serious birth defect found in Texas
- Kansas City Star, January 13, 2016: CDC: Strong signs Brazil birth defects are tied to mosquito
- CBC News, January 14, 2016: Zika virus may be linked to birth defects in Brazil, health officials say
- All Things Considered, NPR, January 14, 2016: CDC could warn pregnant women about risks of visiting countries where Zika virus is spreading
- The Huffington Post, AP, January 14, 2016: There are strong signs Zika virus is linked to birth defects, says CDC
- CBS Evening News, January 16, 2016: Pregnant women warned about Zika virus
- Bahamas Tribune, January 15, 2016: Haiti reports cases of mosquito-borne Zika virus
- BuzzFeed News, January 16, 2016: Zika virus poses real threat of spreading to the U.S., experts say
- Toronto Star, January 17, 2016: Ahead of the Rio Olympics, a foreign invader is linked to an outbreak of birth defects in Brazil
- CBS Evening News, January 18, 2016: Travel warning for pregnant women amid Zika outbreak
- NBC Nightly News, January 18, 2016: Hawaii baby born with brain damage is first U.S. case linked to Zika virus
- Houston Chronicle, January 19, 2016: Emergence of Zika virus stirs debate
- The New York Times, January 25, 2016: Zika Virus: Two cases suggest it could be spread through sex
- Newsweek/Reuters, January 25, 2016: US moms worry about trips as Zika virus spreads
- NPR-The Diane Rehm Snow, January 26, 2016: Growing concerns about the spread of the Zika virus
- BBC News, January 27, 2016: Zika virus: US scientists say vaccine' 10 years away'
- The Washington Post, January 27, 2016: Why the United States is so vulnerable to the alarming spread of Zika virus
- The Scientist, January 28, 2016: Zika update
- IFL Science, January 28, 2016: Zika virus has potential to go pandemic, scientists warn
- Houston Chronicle, January 29, 2016: Area health officials brace for Zika spread as 2nd local case confirmed
- KHOU, Ch. 2 CBS Houston, January 29, 2016: 3 Zika virus cases confirmed in Houston Area
- San Antonio Express-News, February 2, 2016: Zika declared an international emergency, triggers worry locally
- MSN.com, February 2, 2016: Everything parents need to know about the Zika virus
- Scientific American, February 2, 2016: First case of US transmission in ongoing Zika outbreak announced in Texas
- The Dallas Morning News, February 2, 2016: What we know about sexual transmission of the Zika virus
- The Lancet, February 3, 2016: Concern over Zika grips the world
- Houston Chronicle, February 3, 2016: Dallas County reports sexually acquired Zika infection
- Texas Medical Center News, February 3, 2016: Deciphering Zika
- The Scientist, February 3, 2016: Additional Zika tests in development
- NPR, February 3, 2016: What we know so far about sexual transmission of Zika virus
- NPR, February 5, 2016: Mapping Zika: From a monkey in Uganda to a growing global concern
- The New York Times, February 5, 2016: Growing support among experts for Zika advice to delay pregnancy
- The New York Times and MSN.com, February 6, 2016: How a medical mystery in Brazil led doctors to Zika
- US News & World Report, February 8, 2016: CDC goes to highest alert over Zika outbreak
- The Washington Post, February 9, 2016: Zika expert: Microcephaly may just be the tip of the iceberg
- NPR, February 9, 2016: Virus profilers race to figure out what makes Zika tick
- The Verge, February 10, 2016: Strongest evidence yet found for Zika's role in birth defects
- Wired Magazine, February 10, 2016: These scientists saw Zika coming, Now they're fighting back
- Houston Public Media, February 10, 2016: Virus profilers race to figure out what makes Zika tick
- Bloomberg, February 11, 2016: Brazil partners with US scientists to develop Zika vaccine
- Houston Chronicle, February 11, 2016: UTMB to work with Brazil on Zika vaccine
- KHOU, Ch. 11 CBS Houston, February 11, 2016: Brazil Texas state hospital reach deal on Zika vaccine
- KHOU, Ch. 11 CBS Houston, February 11, 2016: UTMB Galveston plans to develop Zika vaccine
- Yahoo News, February 11, 2016: Brazil, Texas state hospital reach deal on Zika vaccine
- San Antonio Express-News, February 11, 2016: UTMB, Brazil to work together on Zika vaccine
- KPRC, Ch. 2 NBC Houston, February 11, 2016: Concern in Houston heightened for Zika causing miscarriages
- The Galveston County Daily News, February 15, 2016: UTMB facility helps fight Zika
- UT-The Daily Texan, February 15, 2016: UT Medical Branch partners with Brazilian Health Ministry to create Zika vaccine
- UT-The Daily Texan, February 15, 2016: For mosquito-borne diseases, long term pragmatism must replace temporary panic
- Fox Business, February 16, 2016: What states are the most at risk for the Zika virus?
- The Washington Post, February 16, 2016: WHO says $56 million needed to fight Zika spread in coming months
- CNN, February 17, 2016: First known sexual transmission of Zika virus in U.S. was eight years ago
- The Washington Post, February 17, 2016: Could chemicals - rather than the Zika virus - be to blame for birth defects in Brazil?
- The Washington Post, February 17, 2016: U.S., Brazilian officials say no scientific basis for theory that chemicals - rather than the Zika virus - is to blame for birth defects
- Medscape, February 17, 2016: Clinicians struggling with what to advise about Zika
- The Washington Post, February 18, 2016: World Bank accounces $150 million to fight Zika outbreak
- Reuters and Yahoo News, February 18, 2016: Experts question assumption that Zika sickens just 1 out of 5
- Outbreak News Today, February 19, 2016: Zika is now a notifiable disease in Brazil: Ministry of Health
- Vox, February 19, 2016: The 5 most troubling questions scientists still have about Zika
- Slate, February 19, 2016: Zika's effects on pregnant women make creating a vaccine even more difficult
- Fox News, Yahoo News, February 19, 2016: Experts question assumption that Zika sickens just 1 out of 5
- CBS News, February 23, 2016: In Texas, a race to find a vaccine for Zika
- CBS Miami, February 23, 2016: U.S. lab working to develop Zika vaccine
- CBS This Morning, February 23, 2016: Texas lab working with Brazil to find Zika vaccine
- Yahoo News and Yahoo Sports, February 23, 2016: Texas lab working with Brazil to find Zika vaccine
- JAMA, February 24, 2016: Researchers focus on solving the Zika riddles
- Yale News and Global Biodefense, February 25, 2016: Zika virus linked to stillbirth, other symptoms in Brazil
- Guide2Nigeria, February 25, 2016: New Zika virus cases confirmed in Florida
- BioNews Texas, February 25, 2016: Brazil partners with Texas hospital for Zika vaccine development
- Managed Care Magazine, February 25, 2016: Report: Zika virus infection may cause stillbirth, loss of brain tissue
- The Galveston County Daily News, February 29, 2016: UTMB research talks Zika
- WebMD, March 7, 2016: Zika on our doorstep
- Austin American-Statesman, March 24, 2016: Despite Zika fears, Texas doctors don't advise delaying pregnancy
- Houston Chronicle, March 28, 2016: UTMB researchers develop mouse model for Zika vaccine testing
- The New York Times, March 28, 2016: Zika study could help overcome an obstacle to vaccine research
- Reuters, Fox News and Voice of America, March 29, 2016: US scientists develop mouse model to test Zika vaccines, drugs
- USA Today, March 29, 2016: Gene-altered mice will speed up Zika drug development
- Outbreak News Today, March 30, 2016: Zika: UTMB researchers describe mouse model, removes bottleneck from treatment screening
- Tech Times, March 31, 2016: Mouse model to help researchers test Zika vaccines and drugs
- US News & World Report, March 31, 2016: The Zika virus, revealed
- Scientific American, April 1, 2016: Zika vaccine could solve one problem while stoking another
- The Scientist, April 5, 2016: New Zika mouse model
- PRI and USA Today, April 7, 2016: Nobody is sure which mosquito spreads Zika virus in Brazil
- Counsel and Heal, April 12, 2016: Zika virus 2016 update: Research found testes contains highest level of virus
- NBC News, May 3, 2016: Zika virus is coming and we're not ready, US experts say
- National Geographic, May 4, 2016: Zika is likely to become a permanent peril in the US
- New York Magazine, May 4, 2016: The US isn't ready for Zika
- The Scientist: May 11, 2016: Zika causes microcephaly in mice
- Newsweek, May 11, 2016: $10 mosquito trap could help fight Zika
- Newsweek, May 13, 2016: Zika virus vaccine possible with help of primate research
- KPRC Ch. 2 NBC Houston, May 16, 2016: Zika virus breakthrough developed at UTMB Galveston
- BBC News, May 16, 2016: Scientists clone Zika for vaccine race
- KTRK, Ch. 13 ABC Houston, May 16, 2016: UTMB-Galveston scientists make huge leap in quest to stop Zika virus
- KTRH Radio Houston: May 16, 2016: Cornyn urges support for legislation to battle Zika virus
- Science Magazine, May 16, 2016: UTMB scientists genetically engineer world's first Zika virus infectious cDNA clone
- NPR Houston Public Media - Morning Edition, May 17, 2016: Who should be worried about Zika and what should they do?
- CNN, May 17, 2016: Scientists clone Zika virus in step toward vaccine
- Xinhua, May 17, 2016: Scientists report world's first Zika clone
- Business Srandard and The Times of India, May 17, 2016: Scientists genetically engineer Zika virus clone
- Nature World News, May 18, 2016: Zika virus clone to speed up vaccine, scientists say
- PBS NewsHour, May 18, 2016: How many Zika-infected infants will develop microcephaly and other FAQs
- KTRK, Ch. 13 ABC Houston, May 19, 2016: Experts warn travelling Houstonians to protect local mosquito populations
- The New York Times, May 20, 2016: CDC is monitoring 279 pregnant women with possible Zika virus infections
- Scientific American, May 24, 2016: How Zika spiraled out of control
- PBS NewsHour and Houston Public Media - Morning Edition, May 24, 2016: Mosquito hunters set traps across Houston, search for signs of Zika
- Huffington Post, May 24, 2016: Are we prepared for emerging infectious diseases?