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Research uncovering reasons for Zika virus emergence

Anna Stewart Ibarra
Upstate Medical University

One Upstate Medical University scientist continuing to study the Zika virus is taking a socio-ecological approach to a virus that has caused major outbreaks of disease in the Americas.

The Zika virus has been around for decades, originally identified in Africa in the 1940s. The question for Upstate researcher Anna Stewart Ibarra is why has it emerged now, and with such persistence. She’s been studying the virus in Equador, and says unprecedented rates of urban population and changes in land use are among the causes. Another culprit, she says, is climate change. Stewart Ibarra says warming temperatures are very inviting to the tiny mosquitos that carry the virus.

"The mosquitos then reproduce more quickly, so their whole life cycle shortens. So from egg to adult it’s fewer days. So they can reproduce and the number of mosquitos can increase much more quickly,” said Stewart Ibarra. “Also when the virus is inside the mosquito, and the temperatures warms up, the virus actually replicates faster and the mosquitos bite more frequently. So everything gets accelerated, which means the whole transmission system accelerates.”

Stewart Ibarra says there are steps that can be taken to prevent the spread of the virus, including public health education, as long as they take into account the local realities of an area.

Going forward, Stewart Ibarra hopes this kind of research can help lead to development of new vaccines, and therapies.

Credit Anna Stewart Ibarra / Upstate Medical University
Upstate Medical University

She says, while the most jarring effect of Zika is microcephaly, when an infant is born with a small head, there is evidence that more children can suffer from neurological impacts of the virus.

“So to me that’s more worrisome than the fewer cases of microcephaly, which are awful, but it’s a fewer proportion. But if you have many many children with these neurodevelopmental issues, it could have a huge impact on a population.”

Some of the findings of the Stewart Ibarra’s also study may lead to an early warning system to alert communities about Zika transmission, as well as a device that can kill the mosquito that carry the virus