Zoning in on Zika


UK researcher studying virus feeds hungry mosquitoes with his own arm

Three times a week, UK entomology professor Grayson Brown rolls up his sleeves and uses his own arm to feed the world’s most dangerous animal while enjoying a morning cup of coffee.

Brown has been at UK since his career began in 1978, and he has researched mosquitoes for 20 years. Numerous media organizations have contacted him for his expertise in the wake of public fear surrounding the Zika virus in recent weeks.

Zika is caused by a virus transmitted from mosquitoes, and it causes symptoms such as skin rashes, red eyes, mild fever, headaches, and muscle and joint pain. An estimated 80 percent of those infected are asymptomatic, meaning they show no symptoms. While the virus is typically benign, Brown said it poses a threat to pregnant women because it has been known to cause birth defects like microcephaly, an abnormal smallness of the head.

Brown said pregnant women should postpone international travel plans to Zika-infected regions, particularly Central and South America, for the next few months until scientists learn more about the disease and its correlation with birth defects. 

Brazil is experiencing the worst outbreak of any country, with more than one million cases, according to information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Some Latin American governments are telling women to stop having children until the outbreaks are under control.

Brown said the disease first appeared in Africa in 1947, with the first infected human documented in the late 1960s. Zika virus eventually spread to the Western Hemisphere, with documented cases of Zika virus appearing in Chile in 2014 and Brazil in April of 2015.

Despite their deadly potential, Brown said many people have misconceptions about mosquitoes — for example, the insects cannot infect humans with HIV or AIDS.

“Mosquitoes are not flying syringes,” Brown said. “In order for a mosquito to transmit a human pathogen, the pathogen has to be adapted to that particular mosquito species.”

Mosquitoes only transmit diseases when their own bodies are contaminated by pathogens, disease carrying agents, which are transmitted through saliva when the insects feed. Brown said this is “a pretty long process.”

There is no vaccine for Zika virus, but Brown said the mosquito species known to carry the virus, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is rare in Kentucky. He said most Americans infected with mosquito-borne diseases acquire them while overseas.

“A mosquito-borne disease is a disease to the mosquito, too,” Brown said. “So a virus has to be able to infect not just the human but also the mosquito, through that whole process, and not many viruses can do that.”

As of Feb. 10, the U.S. had 52 travel-associated Zika virus case reports and no locally acquired infections, according to the CDC. Brown said regions of the U.S. most at risk are subtropical areas like Florida and Southern Texas.

Brown spoke to the Department of Public Health in Frankfort on Wednesday about the state government’s plans for a potential Zika virus outbreak in Kentucky. He said a more detailed plan will emerge when the threat of an outbreak becomes prevelant.

There have been no confirmed cases of a Zika virus infection in Kentucky.

By Cheyene Miller

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