A Public Health Emergency

First discovered in 1947 in an African forest, it has been creeping around the globe for decades, jumping from continent to continent and now settling into the United States.

Carried by a most agreeable host–the Aedes aegypti mosquito–the Zika virus has spread rapidly due to the globalization of travel and trade, along with an expanding habitat for vectors caused by a warming planet.

More than a year before the first locally acquired case of Zika was discovered in Miami in July 2016, scientists at the University of Miami were already knee-deep in research and study about this perplexing virus.

Much more work needs to be done, experts say, because the Zika virus is not going away anytime soon.

“Everyone agrees this is a public health crisis,” says J. Sunil Rao, interim chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences and director of the Division of Biostatistics at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.

“South Florida is likely to be the epicenter, year in and year out.”

The Aedes aegypti mosquito is no stranger to scientists. It’s been around for centuries and is commonly known as the yellow fever mosquito, but is also responsible for the spread of other ailments such as dengue fever and chikungunya.

Research and study underway on Zika by UM scientists, doctors, and faculty covers a spectrum of areas, from improving testing procedures and diagnostics to treatment and care for pregnant women and babies suffering from the debilitating impacts of the virus to examining mosquito control methods and policies and transmission patterns.

To battle the pathogen, the University of Miami has created the Zika Global Network to engage in concert with peers at other universities and health professionals in agencies near and far to find solutions to help control and eradicate the virus.

UM Students monitoring aerial spraying in Miami Beach.An interdisciplinary team of students and faculty at the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences and the College of Engineering is also on the front lines locally to help understand the impacts of methods used to eradicate the mosquito, and thus the virus. The team has monitored aerial spraying of the insecticide naled on Miami Beach. The studies are aimed at determining how much of the insecticide remains in the environment following spraying and for how long.

Aerial spraying alert.“As researchers, it’s critically important to partner with the community to control and manage the vector, and engage the community in how to avoid exposure to the insecticide and avoid the vector,” said Naresh Kumar, associate professor of environmental health in epidemiology and public health.

“Our goal is to generate the relevant data and information and share these data and information with different stakeholders for effective and timely decision-making,” Kumar said.

Jose Szapocznik, professor of public health sciences, said the public needs to be engaged to prevent outbreaks and, when outbreaks occur, quickly stop the epidemic in its tracks. This ranges from using mosquito repellant to eliminating standing water in backyards.

“As we look at this from a public health perspective, every one of us has a role to play,” said Szapocznik. “We have to mobilize every segment of society.”

By Peter E. Howard, project editor and assistant vice president, communications and public relations, and Jessica M. Castillo, project manager and communications manager for special projects.

Video Credit: iStock.com/crewcut

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