All you need to know about the Zika virus

A public lecture on the Zika virus, a member of the flaviviridae virus family, took place March 10 at the Hagey Hall Theatre. It was followed by a question and answer session moderated by Paul Craig with lecturer Christine Dupont from the department of biology, associate Prof. Marc Aucoin of chemical engineering, Prof. Craig Janes of the school of public health and safety, and Prof. Kim Cuddington of the biology department as panelists.</p>

The Zika virus was declared a public health emergency Feb. 1 by the World Health Organization. According to Dupont, the disease is primarily spread by the “Aedes aegypti, originally native to Africa but spread to wide parts of the world.” 

Aedes mosquitoes, unlike the Culex mosquitoes that are native to Canada, are daytime biters. 

“The way that we think about mosquitoes and the way we deal with mosquitoes and try to protect ourselves from them here in Southern Ontario is very different to what you have to do when we meet one of the Aedes mosquitoes,” Dupont said.

The virus has become an issue because it can cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease, and microcephaly, a reduction of the skull’s circumference in young children. Although both these diseases can be caused by other factors, there have been confirmed cases involving the Zika virus. For microcephaly, out of the 641 cases that don’t appear to be because of the fetus’s brain being unable to develop, 82 have been confirmed to be caused by Zika. 

“Several of the questions that need to be asked and answered is, can Zika actually get to the fetus … and can it be found in fetal brains where microcephaly is in place? The answer so far in the few cases that have been evaluated is yes,” Dupont said on the topic of microcephaly. 

Another issue with the virus is that there have been cases of the virus being sexually transmitted, though all cases have been from men to women. 

Although there are currently no vaccinations available for the Zika virus, there are other solutions through pest control such as the engineering of mosquitoes. One example is releasing insects with a dominant lethal gene.

“In our first case here, you have a dominant lethal [gene] carrying male mosquito … he will carry a gene that will render the offspring female flightless,” Aucoin said. “As a result, that female mosquito will not be successful.”

Through genetic engineering, there will be a greater ability to control the mosquito population.

Despite the use of insecticides being a solution to killing mosquitoes that carry viruses, it is one of the least effective methods in controlling mosquito populations. 

“Not only is it not very effective, it’s not necessarily specific to mosquitoes,” Aucoin said. “It can target their natural predators — those that are actually keeping the mosquito population tight, it is also breeding resistance into the mosquitoes, and it’s actually the most costly way of doing it. And because of that, it is not sustainable.”

Because of climate change, the habitat of mosquitoes are currently expanding north. Not only is the Zika virus a health issue, but Craig believes that it can also have economic implications with the summer Olympics coming up in Rio de Janeiro.