Federal government funds Zika research in Haiti

September 15, 2016 -- GAINESVILLE -- Despite intransigence in Washington over Zika funding, the National Institutes of Health have awarded more than 1.75 million dollars to the University of Florida to study the Zika virus.

“Not only are we doing great research on the Zika virus, but for the first time we’re also getting awards to support that research,” said Dr. J. Glenn Morris, MD, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI).

In addition to the NIH funding, which will be allocated over four years to supplement ongoing research into infectious diseases in Haiti, Dr. Bernard Okech, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Health Profession’s department of environmental and global health, received a $100,000 award from the USDA to support his research into the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika virus. Dr. Okech, who is a member of EPI, studies mosquito-borne diseases at the University of Florida’s public health laboratory in Gressier, Haiti.

With the Caribbean so close to Florida, research in that region has relevance for people living within subtropical regions of the United States.

“The funds we are receiving to support our research on the Zika outbreaks in the Caribbean will help us begin to understand the risk to Florida,” Dr. Morris said.

Although the Zika virus has had its greatest impact on people in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, the United States is also at risk of heightened Zika transmission.

bernard-okech

Dr. Bernard Okech

“The U.S. mainland harbors many of the same mosquito species as Haiti,” Dr. Okech said.

Many reports have stressed the significance of Aedes aegypti in transmitting the Zika virus, but other mosquitoes can catch Zika as well. Dr. Okech emphasized the need for more investigation into the competency of Aedes aegypti as a vector compared with other types of mosquitoes.

While Dr. Okech’s grant will support research on the range of mosquitoes able transmit the Zika virus, the NIH award will buttress efforts to identify Zika infections in Haiti, both symptomatic and asymptomatic, tracking the movement of Zika and similar viruses at both the local and national level.

Eighty percent of Zika infections are asymptomatic, exhibiting either no symptoms or so few that the disease cannot be detected by a physician’s standard toolkit: the stethoscope, the thermometer, and the naked eye.

By tracking known Zika cases, however, researchers and public health experts at EPI are able to delve into the dynamics of Zika transmission, finding both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases and elucidating the mechanisms by which Zika has spread throughout Haiti and the region.

In addition to tracking disease transmission, the researchers also plan to create mathematical models to predict future potential outbreaks, while also studying the intricacies of vertical Zika transmission – meaning the transmission of the Zika virus from the mother to the fetus.

“At the Emerging Pathogens Institute, we have experts in virology, entomology, and public health who can shed light on the ways that Zika virus spreads and the danger it poses to regions with ongoing epidemics,” Dr. Morris said. “The additional funding that we’ve received will help us to take further advantage of the infrastructure we already in place, putting resources toward understanding – and eventually containing – the Zika virus.”