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Zika: Is education the most powerful tool for prevention?

The Zika Epidemic
The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes mosquitoes and has been associated with thousands of cases, mostly in Brazil, of a severe birth defect called microcephaly. Babies with microcephaly have abnormally small heads, and most grow-up with stunted brain development, according to the CDC.

Currently, there is no vaccine available, the best form of prevention is using protection against mosquito bites. Zika can also be transmitted sexually, so safe sex should be practiced in areas that Zika is prevalent in. And whilst there is currently no specific treatment available there are other interventions that can be utilised to help combat the disease.

Zika generally doesn’t cause serious illness in adults. People usually display symptoms such as mild fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or headaches for up to a week. These general and relatively mild symptoms mean that many do not visit a doctor, and therefore do not receive a diagnosis. Increased diagnosis of the virus is crucial to fully determine its spread.


 

The rapid rise of Zika

The Pan American Health Organization issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil in May 2015. Since then, the virus has spread throughout Central and South America – and has started spreading into the United States, with the first case being reported in Texas in February 2016 the same month the virus was declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The mosquito species, the Aedes mosquito, which is currently spreading the virus through Latin America and the Caribbean, is predicted to become increasingly abundant across much of the southern and eastern United States as the summer approaches.

New research has emerged which now estimates that around 50 U.S. cities may be at risk for potential Zika virus outbreaks; fortunately they will be smaller than those experienced in Latin America due to differences in living habits.

Using data on climate, mosquito breeding patterns, air travel, and socioeconomic status the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) predicted which areas would make for a hospitable environment for a Zika virus outbreak. Using this data they created the map in Figure 1, which details the most at risk cities in the U.S.


An unlikely friend in the fight

Scientists at The Rene Rachou-Fiocruz Research Center in Brazil have uncovered a way to block transmission of the Zika, providing another tool in the fight to stop the virus’ spread. The unlikely helper is the Wolbachia bacterial endosymbiont, which reduces an Aedes aegypti mosquito’s capacity to harbour Zika. The saliva from Wolbachia-harbouring mosquitoes contained no trace of the virus.  This blocks the transmission pathway. Amazingly, this bacteria prevents transmission of a range of medically important pathogens including Dengue and Chikungunya.


Education as a tool for prevention

Whilst data from such studies are positive and will inform future interventions, tools such as education and awareness raising programmes within the general population will be important and can show almost immediate results.

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Figure 1 Image Source

“We have a key window before the mosquito season gears up in communities within the United States mainland to correct misperceptions about Zika virus so that pregnant women and their partners may take appropriate measures to protect their families”
Gillian SteelFisher
Director of the poll and research scientist in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Harvard Chan School.

Harvard recently conducted a study1 looking at Zika awareness in the American population. They discovered that people often don’t know how Zika spreads, or how it can affect human health. Further to this, one in five believed there was a vaccine to protect against Zika.

An educated public will be able to implement simple prevention strategies, such as using bed nets and getting rid of pools of stagnant water around their homes and gardens. They will recognise the symptoms and know when to seek diagnosis. These efforts will hamper transmission.


Targeting education efforts with pathogen surveillance

In order to most effectively target efforts to educate the public, an accurate picture of the virus’ spread is required. Real-time surveillance system the Internet of Life would provide public health officials with the map they need to mobilise resources. Utilising our state of the art monitoring system to further education and disease prevention efforts is an exciting application, and one which we are keen to see in action.

1 The Harvard poll involved 1,275 adults, including 105 who live in households where someone is pregnant or considering getting pregnant in the next 12 months. It was conducted between March 2 and March 8, 2016.


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