Panel iterates dangers of the Zika virus and potential for US outbreak – Dailyuw

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With the first case of the Zika virus in King County confirmed last Wednesday, there is growing concern that the virus will spread throughout the state and the entire country. 

The UW’s Global Center for Women, Adolescent and Child Health hosted a team of public health officials and doctors Friday to help educate the public on the nature of this virus and how to combat it. 

Zika was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda during a survey of yellow fever, yet only gave the international community cause for concern in 2007 after studies done in the Micronesian island of Yap found that approximately 73 percent of the population was infected. Since then, much of South America and Micronesia have become subject to the virus. 

Zika, while only symptomatic in roughly 20 percent of those infected with the virus, is particularly dangerous because it is directly linked with congenital birth defects. 

Much of the panel was dedicated to documenting the extent of these congenital birth defects. Ghayda Mirzaa, pediatrician and genetics specialist with Seattle Children’s Research Institute Center for Integrative Brain Science, said although the virus is widely reported to cause microcephaly, the strain that manifests is much more severe than “primary microcephaly,” or a form of the defect, which is largely benign.

The form of microcephaly Zika brings on drastically reduces fetal brain tissue, calcifies portions of the brain, enlarges and warps ventricles, and causes a dysplastic cerebral cortex. These are precursors for a whole host of neurological disorders, including epilepsy. 

Jeffery Duchin, professor of epidemiology and King County health officer, said the magnitude of the birth defects are such that medical expenses per capita are upwards of $10 million. 

The virus is transmitted through the mosquito Aedes aegypti. This presents a problem as the insect bites aggressively and primarily lives and breeds near population centers. This mosquito can be found in the United States. 

As the virus poses a potential threat to the United States, a major topic of discussion was how to prevent its spread. 

“I’m telling my patients not to travel if they can avoid it,” said Alyssa Stephenson-Famy, maternal fetal medicine specialist. 

Stephenson advised extreme caution for all women of childbearing age. She encouraged the use of DEET-based mosquito repellent if travel into a Zika-infested area is a necessity. She also strongly urged the use of contraceptives for anyone engaging in sexual activity with someone who has recently been to a Zika-prone area.

For women who are actively planning on a pregnancy, the advisory warnings were much more severe. Duchin advised delaying pregnancy for eight weeks after possible exposure. If exposure to Zika occurs while pregnant, one should immediately seek medical attention to assess the extent of exposure. 

Paul Yager, professor of bioengineering at the UW, said finding the virus is difficult even upon assessment. Zika only presents itself in a blood sample for up to nine days after infection. The cross reactivity between other flaviviruses, like dengue and yellow fever, also makes Zika difficult to find.

John Lynch, medical director of Harborview Medical Center Infection Control, said it is this difficulty of testing that likely caused a significant number of undocumented Ebola-related deaths. 

In response to this, Yager said the time between the request for federal funds and the actual acquisition of said funds is frustratingly long, citing the disbursement of federal money for Ebola that in his opinion came far too late. 

Although the panel disagreed as to how Zika will manifest in the United States in the foreseeable future, it was noted that two facets of the virus allow for its rapid spread: Similar flavians mutate rapidly upon exposure to new gene pools, and only 1 in 5 Zika cases are symptomatic, both of which allow for the dissemination of the virus that would normally be checked by sick patients’ seclusion from the rest of the population. 


Reach reporter Dalton Day at news@dailyuw.comTwitter: @daltonjday

Panel iterates dangers of the Zika virus and potential for US outbreak – Dailyuw