Zika research, prevention discussed at NC conference

Researchers at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill say they are working toward a vaccine to combat Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that has been linked to birth defects in newborns.

Scientists and health officials discussed their research – as well as public health concerns brought up by the virus – at a conference in Research Triangle Park on Tuesday. They were joined by U.S. Rep. David Price, who praised their efforts while criticizing a partisan divide in Washington that has slowed research funding and prevention efforts.

The federal government’s limited ability “to respond in a timely, serious and sustained way to the Zika crisis is baffling,” Price said, even in light of similar failures treating opiod addiction and providing clean water to the residents of Flint, Mich.

Zika became a global concern in December, after the World Health Organization advised expecting mothers to cancel travel plans to Central and South America. The warning came after a quick rise in microcephaly, a condition marked by proportionally small heads and limited brain function, in children born to mothers in Brazil who were sick with Zika. A small number of Zika cases also cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition where a confused immune system attacks the outer coating of nerves similar to multiple sclerosis, paralyzing its victims.

Dr. Sallie Permar, a pediatrician specializing in illnesses contracted by children before birth, spoke at Tuesday’s conference about the work her research group at Duke Medical School is doing to inject antibodies trained to fight Zika into pregnant rabbits. The research is based on previous work where Permar developed a vaccine to fight cytomegalovirus (CMV) in pregnant monkeys. CMV is similar to Zika in that it is a virus that can be passed through the placenta from mother to fetus.

“We need a Zika vaccine,” Permar said.

Dr. Aravinda de Silva of UNC said such a vaccine is “not far away scientifically or conceptually,” but that it would need refining and human trials before it could be given to expecting mothers early enough in their pregnancies to counteract the effects of the disease.

Research groups in Chapel Hill are building tiny scaffolds that mimic the size and shape of a Zika virus and can hold Zika proteins that antibodies can read and remember. If a Zika infection occurs, the trained antibodies can eliminate the virus without exposing a woman in the early stages of her pregnancy to real danger, de Silva explained.

None of the research discussed at Tuesday’s conference will lead to a Zika vaccine that will be ready this summer.

Though most mosquitoes in North Carolina likely won’t carry Zika, state and federal government officials say residents can help prevent the disease from gaining a foothold just by cleaning around their homes.

Homeowners can keep the mosquito out by maintaining screens that cover windows and doors and by not leaving doors or windows ajar. The state Department of Health and Human Services recommends removing standing water from yards about once a week. Tipping over any container that holds water, such as birdbaths or flowerpots, ensures the Asian Tiger mosquito has no place to lay eggs. Also, clearing leaves out of drains will allow rainwater to flow freely.

The Asian Tiger mosquito, which can carry Zika, lives both indoors and outside and can be found in the tropics and as far north as Maine. The Yellow Fever mosquito, more likely to carry Zika, is restricted to the tropics and only lays eggs indoors.

Eleven Zika cases have been reported in North Carolina, where the virus has spread through unprotected sex with an individual coming from a country affected by the disease. Only patients in tropical areas of the United States, such as Puerto Rico, have contracted the disease directly from a mosquito bite.

Stephen Ginley: 919-829-8933

Zika information

More information on Zika and the mosquitoes carrying it can be found in the Zika toolkit at epi.publichealth.nc.gov/zika/toolkit.html