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Business, STEM

Zika Virus Updates: Is the U.S. Ready?

With three months to go before the start of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the Zika virus continues to make the news and in different ways.

First U.S. Death Reported: The first Zika virus death was reported in Puerto Rico (United States) by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about one week ago.

puerto-rico-mapA male in his 70s died from complications related to the infection. The victim had a condition called thrombocytopenia — low platelet count that can result in internal bleeding caused by a rare immune reaction to the virus. CDC’s Tyler Sharp said it’s a rare but known complication of Zika and not a sign that the virus is causing worse symptoms than expected.

“Although Zika virus-associated deaths are rare, the first identified death in Puerto Rico highlights the possibility of severe cases, as well as the need for continued outreach to raise health care providers’ awareness of complications that might lead to severe disease or death,” Sharp and other health officials wrote in a CDC report.

However, mortality from Zika virus is a minor occurrence. The bigger worry  is birth defects.

First Commercial U.S. Test for Zika Virus Approved: Some good news to report is that the first commercial U.S. test to diagnose Zika virus won emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration during the last week of April 2016. This news could not come at a better time as states and the federal government struggle to get ahead of the Zika virus epidemic as it makes its way north to the U.S.

Quest Diagnostics says it should be able to handle any demand for the test; the firm uses the same testing method as government labs to identify Zika virus in a patient’s blood.

“Having a commercial company like Quest involved in testing is essential,” said Dr. Rick Pesano, an infectious diseases specialist who is vice president of research and development for the company.

Until now, persons suspecting they are infected with Zika virus don’t always find it easy to get tested. Only government labs have had approved tests and doctors wanting to test patients have to go through their state or local health departments.

“Quest Diagnostics plans to make the new test broadly available to physicians for patient testing early in the week of May 2, 2016.” Doctors can order the $500 test through Quest, and the results can be available three to five days after patient testing. Quest has its own system of vans that pick up samples and get them to an airport for quick, refrigerated shipment.

A spokeswoman for the firm also stated that the company also offers an uninsured patient price of $120 for individuals who lack health insurance and whose providers have verified their patient is eligible.

Structure of Zika Virus Revealed: The structure of the Zika virus was recently revealed by research groups at Purdue University.

Zika-virus-structure

A representation of the Zika virus surface with prodrucing envelope glycoproteins shown in red.  Source: Kuhn and Rossmann research groups, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN

The research team discovered that the Zika virus surface is similar to that of dengue and related viruses at the near-atomic level, but with a notable difference. The structure also provides clues to understanding how Zika virus enters human cells. This will help identify the best way(s) to develop drugs or vaccines to combat the virus.

The surface of the flavivirus is composed of a shell made of 180 copies of both an envelope glycoprotein and 1 of 2 other proteins anchored in a lipid membrane. The researchers found that the Zika virus structure is similar to that of other known flaviviruses, except for one region of the envelope glycoprotein. Flaviviruses may use this glycoprotein region to attach to and enter human cells.

The newly identified Zika variation could help explain the virus’s ability to attack nerve cells. It might also shed light on Zika’s proposed link to microcephaly. If the site on the envelope glycoprotein functions in Zika as it does in related viruses, the detailed structure might help scientists design ways to block viral attachment and entry to human cells.

“The structure of the virus provides a map that shows potential regions of the virus that could be targeted by a therapeutic treatment, used to create an effective vaccine or to improve our ability to diagnose and distinguish Zika infection from that of other related viruses,” says Dr. Richard Kuhn of Purdue University.

Is the U.S. Ready? Temperatures are beginning to warm up across the U.S. given it is the first week in May. That’s problematic for many states along the southern perimeter because the Zika virus is expected to spread even more with the increase in the mosquito population as we approach summer – a time when people spend more time outdoors.

Zika-virus_mosquitos_andre-penner-photograper

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes

“And preparations are uneven. One of the problems in the United States is that we have a patchwork of mosquito control programs that are generally run at the county level,” says Scott Weaver of the University of Texas Medical Branch at the end of a meeting of Zika experts at Emory University in Atlanta.  “We have nothing at the national level other than advice from the CDC and most states do not even coordinate their programs at the county level very well so. Some very poor communities have virtually nothing available. Some wealthy counties have very sophisticated programs.”

CDC and other federal health agencies and programs say money is needed for better Zika tests, for research on treatments and to help develop a vaccine.

They also need to study Zika, which causes often catastrophic birth defects as well as neurological problems such as the paralyzing Guillain-Barre syndrome. The Obama Administration has been at odds with some in Congress over approving $1.9 billion in emergency funding for this work.

In the meantime what can you do? The most important thing that you can do is protect yourself from mosquito bites. Here are some recommendations from CDC:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Stay in places with air conditioning, windows and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
  • Take steps to control mosquitoes inside and outside of your home.
  • Use a mosquito bed net if you are overseas, or outside and are not able to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
  • Use EPA-registered insect repellents with one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol.
  • Treat clothing and gear with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated items.
  • Remove any form of standing water inside or outside of your residence and office areas.
  • Fog in places where mosquitos are likely to hide including closets and dark corners and spots.

The next update will discuss effects, if any, to the economy of countries experiencing an outbreak of the Zika virus.

Sources Cited:

  1. S. Reports First Zika Virus Death in Puerto Rico, by Maggie Fox for NBC News, April 29, 2016, 2:19 p.m.
  2. First Commercial Zika Virus Test Gets FDA Approval, by Maggie Fox for NBC News, April 28, 2016, 9:12 p.m., http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/zika-virus-outbreak/first-commercial-zika-virus-test-gets-fda-ok-n564481
  3. Zika Virus Structure Revealed, in NIH Matters, April 12, 2016, https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/zika-virus-structure-revealed
  4. Zika Virus Is Coming and We’re Not Ready, U.S. Experts Say, by Maggie Fox and Erika Edwards for NBC News, May 3, 2016, 7:15 p.m., http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/zika-virus-outbreak/zika-virus-coming-we-re-not-ready-u-s-experts-n567261
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About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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