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Zika Forum Spotlights the Epidemic

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    By Robert C. Jones Jr.
    UM News

    John Beier of the Department of Public Health Sciences discusses the importance of effective mosquito-control efforts to help prevent the spread of Zika and other vector-borne diseases.

    John Beier of the Department of Public Health Sciences discusses the importance of effective mosquito-control efforts to help prevent the spread of Zika and other vector-borne diseases. Seated are, from left, Jose Szapocznik, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences; Anna Marie Likos, director of the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection for the Florida Department of Health; and Lillian Rivera, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County.

    CORAL GABLES, Fla. (March 24, 2016) – Here’s the tally, though by the time you read this, the number will have probably changed: 907.

    That is the number of confirmed cases of microcephaly in Brazil. The birth defect, in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and often incomplete brain development, has been linked to an explosion of the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus in that country.

    The virus, which is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, has dominated the headlines for months. While no local mosquito-borne cases have been reported in the U.S., there have been travel-associated cases. In Florida alone, Zika cases now stand at 72.

    And it was that number, as well as other startling statistics, such as how Zika has hit more than three dozen countries and territories in the Americas, that drew more than 300 people to a forum at the University of Miami’s Shalala Student Center on Wednesday that addressed recent developments on the virus.

    The four-hour forum, which was presented by the Miller School of Medicine; UHealth – the University of Miami Health System; the Department of Public Health Sciences; the Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy, whose founder and director, Kenneth W. Goodman, Ph.D., served as the forum’s facilitator; the Department of Medicine; and the Division of Infectious Diseases, included panel discussions and remarks from several researchers and physicians from UM and elsewhere.

    “We’re very concerned about the Zika virus,” said John Beier, professor and director of the Division of Environmental and Public Health in the Miller School’s Department of Public Health Sciences. “It causes microcephaly, but it is also the first sexually transmitted vector-borne disease.”

    He called the virus an Aedes problem, referring to the mosquito that spreads it.

    Aedes aegypti, which can also transmit dengue fever and the chikungunya virus, is proving to be “a little bit more fierce than we’re used to seeing,” said Esper G. Kallas, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, who delivered the forum’s keynote address.

    While females are known to lay their eggs in stagnant freshwater, Aedes aegypti are now showing an ability to multiply in polluted water sources as well, said Kallas. And rising temperatures that are the result of global warming are helping the mosquito to adapt to northern locations, where in the past, the insect would never have been found.

    Beier called the Aedes aegypti a challenge for vector biologists to control, noting that the mosquito has even demonstrated an ability to go underground and find suitable habitats during winter.

    “We have tools for controlling mosquitoes,” said Beier, who also studies mosquito ecology and behavior in West Africa, “and we have newer methods, but they haven’t been validated yet.”

    Florida has some of the world’s most effective mosquito control practices, Beier said. But in developing countries, mosquito infestations can be difficult to control, allowing vector-borne diseases to spread easily. Giving people better access to safe drinking water and improving sewage treatment practices could help, he said.



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