The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed 109 cases of the Zika Virus in the United States. None of the cases are locally acquired; rather, all of them are travel-associated. There are, however, numerous cases of locally acquired cases in the United States’ territories including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Ewing T. Boles Professor of Biology and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Dr. Peggy Richey has one theory for this difference.

“[It may be that] the States are of a cooler temperature and they have better mosquito control, fewer regions of stagnant water, and better insecticides,” she said.

The question becomes, is the Zika Virus a real threat to the people of the United States? Is it the “Western Ebola”? According to Kathy Jones, Director of Parsons Student Health Center, “Zika has the attention of experts around the world.” Research, however, does not seem to indicate such a dire situation.

Infected mosquitos carry the Zika virus. This is a virus that is, “phylogenetically similar to Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever in that it is an arbovirus (a virus carried by arthropods). The Zika Virus produces mostly mild symptoms which are primarily the immune system’s response,” Dr. Richey said. The effects of this virus, however, are not as extreme other viruses. Symptoms of this virus are close to flu symptoms: primarily aches and fever. According to Jones, “some people who are infected with Zika will express no symptoms.”

There is currently no vaccine for this virus, although there is work being done in the scientific community to develop one. Making an antibiotic, Dr. Richey pointed out, is not a quick process.

“Fear is a strong word. Zika is different from Ebola, which is a life threatening illness that presents serious threats to healthcare workers caring for Ebola infected patients and to others in direct contact with an infected person,” Jones said.

Compared to Ebola, Zika is not as threatening, however, research is currently underway concerning the relationship between Zika infected mothers and birth defects of their babies.

“Here in Kentucky, do we need to push the panic button? No. However, the threat is high enough to put our warnings and if a connection with birth defects (particularly, microcephaly) proves to be supported, I consider that significant,” Dr. Richey said.

Why is being educated on this virus important for us at Centre? We have a significant study abroad program that includes various regions of the world in which the Zika Virus has been locally acquired. These regions include, “Costa Rica/Panama, Mérida, Ecuador, Argentina and Uruguay,” Jones said.

According to Dr. Stephen Dove, Assistant Professor of History and current director of the Centre-in-Mérida program, “There have been no confirmed cases of Zika in the Yucatan yet, although the health department seems to believe it is only a matter of time.”

Parsons has taken several steps in order to ensure the safety of students studying abroad. There are mandatory health meetings for students to attend before they leave, in which this virus is being addressed along with steps for prevention. These steps include proper mosquito repelling practices. This particular species of mosquito bites during the day and at night, which is more aggressive than other species that primarily bite at night.

“Sexual transmission has been identified, so the use of condoms is another important Zika prevention message,” Jones said.

This prevention is part of a much larger process taking place in the health care world.

“Healthcare offices are on alert and watchful for any updates in recommendations. We have been in touch with representatives from the Kentucky Department for Public Health and with our local health department,” Jones said. “There is constant communication among health centers. This is key to ensuring the safety of as many people as possible.”

“I have faith in the public health community on the local, national, and international levels. There are smart people with a lot of experience in that community and I trust that there will be quick and efficient actions taken in all regions where Zika is a threat,” Dr. Richey said.

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