Medical experts speak at LUCOM Infectious Disease Symposium
Although it’s been in existence for decades, the Zika virus did not become well known to the general public until early 2016, when the World Health Organization declared it a “public health emergency of international concern.”
On April 6, the White House announced that $589 million leftover in the fight against Ebola will now go to combating the Zika virus. The money will be devoted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for research on the virus and related birth defects.
To address the concerns about Zika and other emerging viruses, the Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine (LUCOM) Center for Research hosted an Infectious Disease Symposium, March 31, at the Center for Medical and Health Sciences. The panel of speakers included Yingguang Liu, LUCOM associate professor of microbiology, Richard Lane, M.D., director of LU Master of Public Health program, and Robert Brennan, M.D., infectious disease specialist at Medical Associates of Central Virginia.
“Zika could potentially spread anywhere the mosquito vector is found,” said Dr. Lane.
Statistics from the CDC show that as of March 30 there had been 312 cases of the Zika virus reported in the U.S. So far, there have been no locally acquired, vector-borne cases reported.
But in explaining the vectors, Dr. Lane outlined some possible scenarios the U.S. could face.
“The primary vector Aedes egypti is found in all tropical and subtropical regions. The species is native to Florida and the Gulf Coast. It historically spread into areas of Virginia but has recently been displaced by a related mosquito Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito. Theoretically, the primary vector could reestablish itself in our region. There is also a possibility of the tiger mosquito serving as a vector. If so, the disease could reach much of the U.S.,” said Dr. Lane.
Dr. Lane also explained how the Zika virus affects pregnant women, noting a case in Missouri of a woman who had recently returned from South America and was diagnosed with Zika.
At 16 weeks, all scans were normal. At 20 weeks, there were signs of microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected. The woman chose to have a late abortion; testing of the aborted child was positive for Zika virus.
“This is important for a variety of reasons. First, women are choosing to abort these children. Second, the virus has been isolated in affected children, part of Koch’s criteria to prove causation. And third, the virus lasts in a fetus well beyond a couple weeks and continues to do damage,” said Dr. Lane.
Also during the symposium, Dr. Brennan outlined the clinical features of emerging viruses, including Zika. He also discussed the diagnosis and treatment of the diseases and the challenges of the Zika epidemic.
Discussing the origin of the viruses, Dr. Liu referred to them as “new” because many are actually newer forms of old viruses.
“We would use the same prevention strategy against new and old mosquito-borne viruses. Basic treatment is the same, and we may try old drugs used to treat older members of a viral family on new members. Because the Zika virus is so similar to the Dengue virus, there may be cross-reactions in the testing kits, and laboratories have to be careful to rule out Dengue before diagnosing Zika,” said Dr. Liu.
As medical experts here and beyond continue to track the Zika virus and its path, Joseph W. Brewer, Ph.D., dean of the LUCOM Center for Research, says he hopes the community will continue to take advantage of opportunities to stay informed.
“With the increase in international travel, an infectious disease on one continent can threaten people around the world, almost overnight. Our hope is that the Infectious Disease Symposium helped clarify key issues for a few of the current major challenges, such as Zika virus. Unraveling the mysteries of Zika virus and other infectious agents requires much time and cooperative research efforts of healthcare professionals and biomedical scientists,” said Dr. Brewer.