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Zika’s long, strange trip into the limelight next emerging threat?

Vivek | 02/10/2015

Come January of the following year, the same researchers trapped mosquitoes from these canopy platforms and took their bounty back to the lab, hoping to isolate yellow fever virus. Others had shown that one of these species they caught, Aedes africanus, shuttled the yellow fever virus, so the investigators put 86 of the insects in a refrigerator to “render them inactive” and then ground them up in a blood-saline solution, which they again injected into the brains of mice. The animals “appeared inactive” after 7 days, and tests showed they harbored the same transmissible agent that had sickened Rhesus 766.The researchers called their “hitherto unrecorded virus” Zika.

For nearly 7 decades, the Zika virus would remain a virological curiosity, receiving little more attention than other obscure members of the Flaviviridae family that are transmitted by mosquitoes, such as Spondweni, Wesselsbron, and Ntaya. But now that it appears as though Zika might be causing serious harm to babies in Brazil, the World Health Organization has deemed it a “public health emergency of international concern.” It’s fast earning the reputation of the scariest virus on the planet. And the recent explosive spread of Zika around Latin America and the Caribbean serves notice, yet again, that remote places are no longer as remote as they used to be—so expect ever more exotic pathogens lurking in nature to become commonplace.

The Uganda Virus Research Institute in Entebbe, located 11 kilometers northeast of the Zika Forest, just after the end of World War II carried out the meticulous work that isolated the pathogen du jour. The researchers included a Scottish virologist, George Dick of the National Institute for Medical Research in London, and two former members of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City, Stuart Kitchen and Alexander Haddow. They waited until September 1952 to publish their findings, which appeared in back-to-back papers in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. In addition to experiments with more rhesus monkeys and mice, their exhaustive studies put the Zika virus into grivet and red tail monkeys, cotton rats, guinea pigs, and rabbits. The virus caused damage to neurons only in mice. Six of 99 humans they tested in four different Ugandan locales had antibodies to their new bug, but none showed evidence of disease.

As one of the two papers drily concluded: “The absence of the recognition of a disease in humans caused by Zika virus does not necessarily mean that the disease is either rare or unimportant.”

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