Space & Innovation

Zika Virus Likely to Hit US Before Vaccine

Pregnant women should avoid mosquitoes, say experts, since the virus will reach the United States before a vaccine or treatment is found.

If you're pregnant, or considering becoming pregnant, you're probably paying close attention to the flood of Zika virus news.

That's smart, experts say: the mosquito-borne virus that has been linked with brain abnormalities in infants will almost certainly hit the United States before a vaccine or treatment is found. This week the World Health Organization warned every country in North, South and Central America except Canada and continental Chile to expect the virus.

That means the best protection is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes – which is not much comfort for parents-to-be who have recently traveled to countries where the disease is rampant.

Photos: The Art of Microbiology

Dr. Laura Riley, president of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine and a specialist in high-risk pregnancies at Massachusetts General Hospital, has fielded many concerned calls from pregnant women who are worried that their baby might have microcephaly (ME), a condition that causes a baby to be born with an extremely small head.

"They're so nervous and frustrated and feeling awful and I wish I could make them feel better," Riley said.

But the only tests available are difficult to interpret, and not widely available, so they're being reserved for pregnant women who have symptoms of Zika. The problem is, 80 percent of people infected with the virus don't have symptoms. In fact, that's why countries like Brazil were blindsided: No one realized the extent of the infections until 3,893 babies were born with ME starting in October, up from less than 150 cases in 2014.

"For all sorts of reasons, it's the worst case scenario," Riley said.

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While fetuses of worried American parents are being monitored by ultrasound, which can detect ME at around 24-27 weeks, some countries such as El Salvador and Colombia are advising women to delay getting pregnant for months or even years. Even in the U.S., it's been suggested that couples consider factoring their risk of Zika in when considering getting pregnant, especially in areas projected to be hardest hit.

Because so little is known about the virus – nothing has been published in scientific journals – the best approach is to assume the U.S. is vulnerable, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

It could be that Zika follows the pattern of other mosquito-borne viruses that didn't take hold in the United States, but that's far from a certainty – and if the U.S. isn't prepared, it would be a "disaster nine months later," Hotez said.

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"The other factor to consider is poverty," Hotez said, and that doesn't mean the U.S. is immune. "People don't recognize the level of extreme poverty in the 5th ward of Houston."

Standing water in discarded tires provides ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and most homes are not protected by screens.

So far, about a dozen Americans who traveled to infected countries have tested positive for Zika. While they could potentially spread the virus by being bitten by mosquitoes in the United States and those mosquitoes biting others, the areas considered most at risk are places where the type of mosquitoes most efficient at transmitting the disease live, in the southeast of the country. [CDC map]

Video: Why Can't We Get Rid Of Mosquitoes?

In Texas, where the Aedes mosquito thrives, and 20 other states, abortions are illegal by the time ME could be detected on an ultrasound. And summer is fewer than nine months away, although some say it's too soon to delay pregnancies in the U.S., especially since transmission is suspected to occur during the first trimester of pregnancy. Still, those uncertainties are what keep the phones ringing in OB/GYN offices.

"We're advising women who are concerned to do an ultrasound check every three to four weeks, because we don't know the natural history of the disease," Riley said. "That's what most obstetricians would be interested in knowing: if you're exposed in the third trimester, for example, what is the likelihood a baby would have ME? Does the virus have any effect that late in pregnancy?"

With the potential to affect everything from socioeconomics to the U.S. presidential election, Hotez said, it's difficult to take a wait-and-see approach.

"Hopefully by the time it's more widespread in the U.S. we have more information and hopefully we'll learn more about how to best utilize the tests, and learn a lot more about the natural history of the disease and the power to prevent it," Riley said.

The mosquito, Aedes aegypti, is the primary vector for the Zika virus.

Rarely has anyone looked at a potentially fatal infectious disease and exclaimed, "Now, that is a thing of beauty." One sculptor, however, has taken bacteria and viruses from their invisible world and placed them in ours.

Artist Luke Jerram has created a collection of glass artwork in the shape microorganisms -- bacteria and viruses no less that have the potential to infect or even kill human beings. By bringing these microscopic marauders to the light, Jerram demystifies these otherwise unknowable microorganisms. And using glass as a medium reinforces not only the fragility of the work, but also our own in the face of these diseases.

In this slide show, take a closer look at some of the highlights from Jerram's glass microbiology collection.

Turning HIV into a work of art is a seemingly impossible task. The virus is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 34 million people worldwide since the epidemic was first reported in 1981, according to UNAIDS, the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

The HIV virus sculpture was the first Jerram built for his collection.

If there's one disease that has plagued humankind throughout its history, it's malaria. In 2010, the World Health Organization estimated that more than 200 million people were infected with the disease, mostly in poverty-stricken regions of sub-Saharan Africa, but also parts of South America and Southeast Asia.

Malaria is transmitted through mosquito bites. Mosquito nets, insect repellant and pesticides are all effective means of prevention, but only for those with the available resources and access to afford them.

Looking at this spindly sculpture might make you the slightest bit queasy, and for good reason. E. coli is represented by this glass artwork. Although most E. coli strains are in fact harmless to humans, the strains we're most acquainted with are the ones that cause food poisoning.

This alien-looking sculpture is actually T4 Bacteriophage, a virus that targets E. coli bacteria.

Bacteriophages are small viruses that attach to the cell membrane of bacteria. The virus injects its DNA into the bacteria, which then produces replicas of the virus, filling the bacterium until it bursts.

If this model is giving you that nostalgic feeling of plagues past, you might not be surprised to find out that this work represents Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

SARS made global headlines in 2003 when people in 37 countries and nearly reached pandemic levels. Although coverage of the illness was widely criticized for overstating the threat, nearly 9,000 were infected with the disease, with had a nearly 10 percent fatality rate.

Swine flu, shown here, was another contagious disease that drew global attention that Jerram selected for his exhibition, but this time it was personal. According to his website, Jerram came down with swine flu and constructed the sculpture "with a fever whilst swallowing my Tamiflu tablets every few hours."

Swine flu, or H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, made global headlines in 2009 as the next potential major flu epidemic. Though common among pigs, swine flu is rarely transmitted among humans. When it does infect a human, however, the symptoms associated with the virus, typical of other flu strains, are particularly acute.

Given just how common the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is among humans, you'd think this virus, pictured here, wouldn't be so controversial. In fact, it isn't, but the use of a vaccine to prevent the infection, which can lead to certain kinds of cancers in women.

Because the virus can be transmitted sexually, however, the idea of vaccinations, particularly compulsory ones for children -- the vaccine is in fact intended only for people 25 and younger -- generated a considerable pushback, despite the obvious benefits of the treatment.

Hand, foot and mouth disease might not get a lot of press, but these disease outbreaks are in fact fairly common, particularly among infants and children. Occasionally, they can be fatal. Symptoms are similar to the flu, with the exception of sores that can appear all over the body, but particularly the hands, feet and mouth of the carrier.

This final entry is an unrealized future mutation for a disease that doesn't exist yet. Look for it in a contaminated water main, food source or loving pet near you. (But seriously, don't.)