New information on Zika virus heightens concern

The public health concern over the Zika outbreak continues to escalate as new details on the transmission and localization of infected mosquitoes emerge. Recently in New York City, evidence of the first sexual transmission of the virus from a female to a male was reported by the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Although male-to-female sexual transmission of the virus has been well documented, this is the first demonstrated case of such transmission from female to male.

Just a few days later, the CDC again reported another potentially new means of transmission. A man in Utah was identified as suffering from the Zika virus after caring for an elderly family member who passed away from Zika infection. The man who died had traveled to Zika-infected areas and lab tests showed that he had an unusually high level of the virus. Zika was thought to spread from pregnant mother to child in the womb, via sexual contact and from the bite of an infected mosquito. The CDC and Utah public health officials are now investigating if there are other means of person-to-person transmission as infected mosquitoes have yet to be found in Utah. However, according to BBC News, experts “stressed that the spread from one person to another without sexual contact is still very unlikely or rare.” The CDC and public health officials are currently investigating this mysterious case of Zika. Dr. Satish Pillai, the CDC’s incident manager, said, “There is no evidence at this point that the virus can be spread from one person to another by sneezing or coughing, routine touching, kissing, hugging or sharing utensils.”
Digitally-colorized transmission electron micrograph of Zika virus. Credit: CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith.

On July 20th, Florida health officials announced that they are investigating another unique case of Zika virus. The individual infected may be the initial evidence of a “non-travel related case” of the virus in the United States. According the NBC News, if confirmed, this would be the first suggestion that Zika-infected mosquitoes have reached the continental United States.

The Zika virus, known to cause microcephaly in babies born to Zika-infected mothers, is also linked to the autoimmune syndrome Guillain-Barre in adults. At the recent American Academy of Neurology meeting, researchers in Brazil reported another brain disorder in Zika-infected adults called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), causing further concern.

As scientists and public health officials continue to investigate Zika in a number of countries, the upcoming Summer Olympics in Brazil poses serious risk of increased infection as Zika-carrying mosquitoes are rampant in Rio de Janeiro, the site of the games. Dr. Amir Attaran, faculty of medicine and law at the University of Ottawa, recently published a commentary in the Harvard Public Health Review suggesting that the Olympic games should be “postponed, moved, or both, as a precautionary concession,” stating five reasons.

First, Dr. Attaran details that Zika cases in Rio de Janeiro are some of the highest in Brazil. Secondly, he points out that the “viral strain that entered Brazil is clearly new, different, and vastly more dangerous than ‘old’ Zika” based on recent phylogenetic mapping studies. Next, Dr. Attaran suggests that the Olympics will speed up the spread of the disease as travelers and athletes from all over the world will be at risk for Zika infection, then return home. This will decrease the time scientists have to make important strides in prevention and treatment of Zika. Finally, he asks, “how socially responsible or ethical is it to spread disease?”

According to the World Health Organization, “athletes and visitors will face risks similar to residents of Brazil. They are at risk of being infected with Zika if bitten by an infected mosquito or through sexual transmission of the virus. The Games will take place during Brazil’s wintertime, when there are fewer active mosquitoes and the risk of being bitten is lower.”

As stated by the WHO, nearly sixty countries have reported transmission of Zika by mosquitoes. NBC News reports that in the United States, more than 1,300 cases of Zika have now been reported; 346 of them pregnant women.

With such high stakes, research to better understand, treat and ultimately vaccinate against Zika is critical. If you’re studying the virus, check out our related reagents, including a Zika virus envelope (E) protein antibody, flavivirus E protein antibody and dsRNA antibody that reacts with the Zika virus. If your lab has other Zika research tools you’d like to make easily available to the wider scientific community, please contact us today.