The Zika virus, unlike other mosquito-borne viruses such as dengue, is relatively unknown and unstudied. That is set to change since Zika, now spreading through Latin America and the Caribbean, has been associated with an alarming rise in babies born in Brazil with abnormally small heads and brain defects – a condition called microcephaly.
“This is a huge public health emergency and horrible on many levels,” says Uriel Kitron, chair of Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences and an expert in vector-borne diseases, which are transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks or other organisms. “The microcephaly cases are a personal tragedy for the families whose babies are affected. They will need much care and support, some of them for decades. The costs to the public health system will be enormous, and Brazil was already experiencing an economic crisis.”
For the past several years, Kitron has collaborated with Brazilian scientists and health officials to study the dengue virus, which is spread by the same mosquito species, Aedes aegypti, as Zika. The focus of that collaboration is now shifting to Zika. Kitron will return to Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, in February to support the country’s research strategies and control efforts for the outbreak.
“Dengue is a very serious disease, but it doesn’t usually kill people,” Kitron says. “Zika is a game-changer. It appears that this virus may pass through a woman’s placenta and impact her unborn child. That’s about as scary as it gets.”