Chancellor, experts give a lesson on Zika

Summer is a time for fireworks, sweet corn and constant mosquito-swatting in North Carolina. The good news is that — so far — our local mosquito species doesn’t seem to carry the Zika virus. The bad news is that we don’t know how long that will be true or how likely it is that the Zika-carrying insects will come here.

These are just some of the facts shared by Chancellor Carol L. Folt and three experts at “The Zika Virus: What You Need to Know” event June 30 at the Student Union.

The Zika virus has been in existence for 50 years and is a fairly mild infection compared to similar mosquito-borne viruses like dengue and malaria. Often, people with Zika don’t even notice any symptoms.

But unlike those other infections, Zika can also be transmitted through sexual activity and has been linked to severe birth defects in babies whose mothers were infected during pregnancy.

“This is an important topic. It’s going to be in the news, and this seemed a really good time for this kind of event,” Folt told the 70 or so people that filled the meeting room for the talks.

Summer is a peak travel time and travelers to countries known to have Zika are the most likely way for the virus to enter North Carolina, which already has 18 confirmed cases. Summer is also prime time for mosquitos, which spread the virus. The fact that this year’s summer Olympics are being held in Brazil, where Zika has been widespread, has also increased interest in the virus.

Carolina is a good place for the talks because the University has more than 10 groups currently doing Zika research. Calling Zika a problem that is “complicated but highly solvable,” Folt told the group that the University recently funded three Zika pilot studies on campus to learn more about the virus and how it’s spread.

Waiting for a federal grant would have taken too long and slowed the work of Carolina researchers who are trying to get ahead of the Zika virus. “We need to be able to deploy these early responders that are definitely collaborative with state and federal agencies,” she said.

Speakers at the Zika awareness event addressed different aspects of the virus in a series of short talks. Colleen Bridger, Orange County health director, shared five steps to prevent Zika:

  1. Avoid travel to any of the 62 countries known to have Zika;
  2. Avoid unprotected sex with men who have traveled to areas known to have Zika;
  3. Avoid mosquito bites;
  4. Mosquito-proof your home and yard by dumping standing water; and
  5. Avoid mosquitoes if you’ve had Zika.

Zika researcher Aravinda de Silva spoke about how unusual Zika is compared to similar viruses, especially the danger it poses to pregnant women and people who have unsafe sex.

“Zika goes to parts of the body not usually associated with mosquito-borne diseases — not just the blood but also urine and semen,” he said.

Researchers are looking to other viruses as a model for creating a vaccine for Zika.

“Excellent vaccines are available for closely related viruses,” De Silva said.

But live viruses can’t be used to vaccinate pregnant women. So Carolina researcher Joe DeSimone is investigating the use of nanoparticles to create a vaccine that would be safe during pregnancy.

The state of North Carolina is also working on ways to respond to the threat of Zika, particularly the testing of pregnant women for the virus.

Women used to wait six weeks for their test results to come back, said Randall Williams of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. “Now you can get results back in six days,” he said.

His department is also publicizing ways to decrease the mosquito population, encouraging residents to “tip and toss” any standing water in containers around the home once a week. When outdoors, wear long pants, long sleeves and mosquito repellant. Indoors, use air conditioning or keep screens in open windows and doors.

The Zika awareness talks were preceded by an information fair just outside the union. Stationed behind tables, faculty, staff and state public health representatives passed out leaflets and mosquito repellant and fielded questions from passersby.

The expert speakers inside also took questions from the audience. One man who was about to take a Caribbean cruise was told to wear long pants, long sleeves and mosquito repellant and to stay near a fan, because mosquitos don’t like moving air. Another wanted to know how long he and his wife should wait after she traveled in a country with Zika to start trying to have a baby. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have guidelines, he was told, but probably about six months to be on the safe side.

“Is Zika transmitted through breast milk?” a woman asked.

“I don’t know,” said De Silva, causing Folt to point out how much is still to be discovered about the virus.

One interesting fact about the Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito is that it is a daytime biter, unlike the local Aedes albopictus, which attacks at dawn and dusk.

Aedes aegypti have another distinction. “If you’re young enough to have really good eyes and you have really quick reflexes, you might notice that they have striped legs,” Bridger said. “I myself don’t wait that long before trying to whack them.”

Watch the “The Zika Virus: What You Need to Know” event here.

More about Zika:

On campus

State/national/international

To learn more about Carolina’s research on the Zika virus, listen to the latest episode of Well Said.

Story by Susan Hudson, University Gazette. Photos by Jon Gardiner, Office of Communications and Public Affairs. Video by Rob Holliday, Office of Communications and Public Affairs.
Published June 30, 2016. Updated July 1, 2016.