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Zeroing in on Zika

With vacation travel picking up, attention is returning to the Zika virus, which last summer raised anxiety among globe-trotters heading to warm climates and prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue public health alerts.

The good news this year is that Zika is no longer considered by the WHO to be in an explosive outbreak stage, explains Peter Piermarini, a scientist at The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster and associate professor in the Department of Entomology. And U.S. residents, in fact, are less likely to deal with Zika than a host of other mosquito-borne illnesses.

The symptoms of Zika are relatively mild for the average person — a fever, rash, headache, joint and muscle pain and red eyes. More serious cases could affect the nervous system and cause temporary paralysis. (Be sure to check our 5 Prevention Tips at the end.)

Pregnant women and couples in the family-planning stage are of prime concern and must be the most diligent about exposure, because the virus presents major risks for certain birth defects in unborn children.

Here, Piermarini answers questions about his research goals, the role of mosquitoes in our ecological system and tips for staying healthy while traveling this summer.

Are health organizations as worried about Zika this year as they were in 2016?

Despite the rescinding of the global health emergency, traveling carries the same risk for Zika this year. The virus is now endemic for Latin America, and in somewhat of a steady state for the Caribbean.

The cases reported in the United States last year were caused primarily from people traveling to other countries that had outbreaks. However, there has been some limited mosquito-borne transmission of Zika in Florida and Texas.

I’m not aware of any mosquito-borne cases of Zika in the United States for 2017 at this point. Last year, Zika didn’t show up in Florida until September and was limited and focused in the Miami area.

How could your research potentially protect people from Zika and other diseases spread by mosquitoes?

We are looking at the biology of mosquitoes that transmit the virus to better understand how mosquitoes take and process blood from humans.

By investigating how they operate on the molecular level, we can develop new insecticides that work better and are sustainable. By doing this, we can enhance our toolbox to gain greater control over mosquitoes.

If we can knock out mosquitoes, then we can essentially control many diseases. We need to come up with products that mosquitoes aren’t resistant to.

Wouldn’t it be a bad thing to eradicate all mosquitoes?

In reality, the eradication of mosquitoes is not likely to happen anytime soon. The species of mosquitoes that transmit Zika, dengue fever and yellow fever in the Western hemisphere are invasive species accidentally introduced by humans. These are the species we primarily target with our research at Ohio State, and they do not have a natural ecological role in the Western hemisphere.

Mosquitoes contribute to important ecological roles such as pollination, being a source of food for some animals and transmitting pathogens (population control), but it is unclear whether their eradication would have noticeable ecological consequences. Eliminating them entirely would likely provide opportunities for other animals/insects to fill in their niches.

Not all mosquitoes feed on blood and transmit disease, and some species are quite appealing to look at with ornate colors. In fact, most mosquito species are not directly harmful to humans.

What progress have you made to target the mosquitoes carrying harmful viruses?

Our team has found a chemical that interferes with the function of a class of mosquito proteins, called potassium channels. The chemical compromises the ability of mosquitoes to excrete urine.

The chemical targets the mosquito equivalent of a kidney and essentially puts them into renal failure. The chemical leaves mosquitoes unable to fly and, in some cases, they become severely bloated. These all lead to a shorter lifespan for the mosquitoes.

So what’s next for advancing this research?

We are in the development phase of enhancing the technology to produce a better insecticide, which could take five to 10 years. We are working on a collaborative project to develop chemicals with Vanderbilt and Nebraska that could pave the way for new insecticides.

These could be effective against mosquito vectors of Zika virus, dengue fever, chikungunya and malaria.

Ohio State will test the products on mosquitoes, which is a lengthy process. We must overcome a variety of paths, criteria and stringent benchmarks along the way. We need to ensure the products are not toxic to mammals and humans and other insects like honeybees.

You said Zika poses less of a risk to those in the United States than other diseases. Can you elaborate?

In the Western hemisphere, anyone traveling to tropical locations must be aware of dengue fever and chikungunya. These are found in tropics throughout the world and spread by mosquitoes.

If you are traveling to Africa and Southeast Asia, be aware that malaria is a major consideration.

Emerging concern in South America is yellow fever, especially in Brazil.

Closer to home there’s the West Nile and LaCrosse viruses.

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5 prevention tips

Piermarini pointed out ways consumers can protect themselves from mosquito-borne illnesses like those described above.

  1. Get vaccinated.
    Consult a travel nurse or physician about what vaccinations are recommended or required before you travel internationally. A goal in the medical field is to develop a specific vaccine for each of these viruses to eliminate future outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases.

  2. Expectant families: Restrict travel plans.
    Pregnant women (or couples planning a family soon) should avoid traveling to locations with Zika-infected mosquitoes. Be aware that sexually active men can be asymptomatic and still transmit the virus to their partners, because it stays in the seminal fluid as long as a month after infection.

  3. Bring repellent.
    Pack bug repellent when you travel, because it may not be available to buy. Products containing the chemical DEET are the most effective and may be applied to clothing. You also can look for natural products to bring.

  4. Cover up.
    Wear protective clothing that covers your arms and legs when you are outdoors, especially in places like a rainforest.

  5. Keep them out.
    Stay at places that have window screens or air conditioning. Try to find places that protect you from the risks of being bitten.

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center also offers insights on health concerns related to mosquitoes and ticks. Check out its guide for the summer for more.