Israeli scientists helping with the battle against the Zika virus

Zika virus mosqueto

In May 2015 the Pan American Health Organization announced that a case of the Zika virus has been confirmed in Brazil, the first infection outside of Africa, Southeast Asia, or the Pacific Islands. On February 1, 2016 the World Health Organization announced a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The virus has been rampantly spreading across the Americas. The international health community is deeply concerned, as they should be. What's the big deal, though? After all, people infected with the Zika virus only show relatively mild symptoms, such as a mild fever and a skin rash.

The big deal is that there may be a connection between the Zika virus and microcephaly (a condition in which a baby's head is smaller than expected when compared to babies that are the same age and sex) and possibly even Guillain-Barre syndrome (a disorder in which a person's own immune system damages the nerve cells causing muscle weakness and possibly paralysis). Basically, the Zika virus may be linked to serious birth defects. Also the Zika virus has no vaccine or treatment, so we're fairly helpless against it. Israeli virologist Dr. Leslie Lobel and a group of colleagues want to change that.

Dr. Lobel's group is investigating the Zika virus and other arboviruses. Dr. Lobel told Israel21c that they're trying to find “what's different there in terms of the comprehensive immune response, viral genetics, and host genetics.” They're trying to figure out why after more than 60 years, the virus has suddenly started to change and spread.

The group has been working with Ugandan scientists who have been collecting insects in the Zika Forest of Uganda to study the viruses carried by these insects. They have also been testing to see if arboviruses have any impact on other diseases, such as Ebola and Marburg viruses. The main problem they're trying to sort out is why such a relatively mild disease suddenly seems to be becoming much more serious. Until recently, it wasn't even necessary to seek treatment. For years, no one even really bothered researching the disease. Now that there may be an association between Zika and microcephaly, it's on everyone's radar.

Lobel's group has recently begun comparing blood samples of infected people in Uganda and infected people in Brazil to examine the viral strains in both countries. The group will also be involved in a consortium of about 10 virology labs in Europe, South America, and the United States. The consortium hopes to prove or disprove the link between the virus and birth defects. They will investigate to see if the virus and/or host genetics are different in Brazil than Africa.

The group believes that more funding should be made available for Zika virus research since the World Health Organization declared the amount of brain-damaged babies a public health emergency of international concern. Lobel told Israel21c that they're “at the beginning stage” and “the hysteria is out there before the science.” Only if they determine that there is a link between the virus will there be a need to research treatment options. People should still take medical advice seriously, as there is a fairly apparent connection between viral infection and microcephaly.

Lobel's group hopes to use the Zika virus as a model to look at other viruses that have changing pathology. They conduct studies in Uganda as it is one of the sources of many diseases. Their research is funded by grants, but they believe governments and medical schools should get involved too, as viruses will become more and more of a problem in the future. Climate change is facilitating the spreading of insects' territories, meaning more insect-borne viruses will be more widespread as the world gets warmer.

A study conducted by the University of Haifa and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has determined that there is a link between the unusually hot, dry winter and spring in northeast Brazil and the outbreak of the Zika virus epidemic. A combination of climate change and El Nino caused the extreme temperature and drought.

The outbreak was associated with heavy rains in Latin and Central America caused by El Nino, but Shlomit Paz of the University of Haifa and Prof. Jan C. Semenza of the Stockholm Environmental Institute believe the outbreak was actually caused by a wave of very dry and hot conditions, as the rains fell in areas far away from where the outbreak happened. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collected data which shows that the latter half of 2015 – winter and spring in the southern hemisphere – had the highest temperatures since records began, combined with a severe drought. The following weeks brought the Zika outbreak.

Paz believes the unusual weather was brought on by El Nino and the patterns of global climate change that have affected the whole world. High temperatures can cause an increase in the growth rates of the Aedes mosquito (the mosquito which carries the Zika virus). Their habitats in droughts are in open vessels of water stored by the locals. A combination of the weather and the locals' response created an ideal habitat for the mosquitoes. The study being conducted by the researchers is expanding to gain further insight into the nature of the relationship between climate change and the outbreak of the disease. Because of the health risks and the fact that Aedes mosquitoes also carry other diseases, Paz believes that the impact of climate conditions must be addressed.

The Zika virus epidemic is one of the more worrying health issues at the moment. The teams now working on finding out more about the virus and the origins of its recent changes will hopefully be able to find out what this virus can now do and how to stop it from spreading. Whether or not it's as much of a risk as is feared is still up to question, but, regardless of that uncertainty, people, especially pregnant women and women of childbearing age, should be extremely careful. Avoid situations which may cause you to get mosquito bites if possible. The mosquito that spreads the Zika virus mostly bites during the daytime. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Use insect repellent. Also, try to avoid situations that could spread the virus if you are infected. Avoid mosquito bites during the first week of illness. Remember, there is no vaccine or cure for the Zika virus. Before traveling, check for any health alerts at your destination.