University of Alberta researches ways to diagnose, treat Zika virus
EDMONTON — Researchers at the University of Alberta have been working for months to find a way to diagnose Zika virus.
The World Health Organization declared the spread of the mosquito-borne disease in the Americas an international emergency Monday. Last week the WHO estimated there could be three to four million cases diagnosed in the Americas over the next year.
There have been four confirmed cases of Zika virus in Canada, but Canada’s chief public health officer says the risk to Canadians is very, very low.
While most people have only recently learned of the virus, U of A virologist Tom Hobman and his team have been researching it for months to pinpoint diagnostic tools to identify those who are infected with the virus and therapeutics to fight it.
Hobman said he was alerted to the disease by his colleague Dr. Anil Kumar.
“I’d never heard of it,” Hobman explained. “He said, ‘I think this is really going to be a big problem very, very soon.’ And I don’t think even he realized how right he was.”
“I was following it for a couple of years, that it was in the Pacific Islands and it was doing some local outbreaks,” Kumar said. “I knew that once it reached Brazil there was the possibility that this can spread really fast, but the speed at which it spread really even amazed me.”
After a bit of planning, the university received the virus on Jan. 20. Feeling a sense of urgency to develop diagnostic tools, researchers have been working 10 to 12-hour days to keep the science moving forward.
“I think we’ve done more experiments in the last week-and-a-half than we would have expected to get done in a couple of months,” Hobman said. “Unfortunately, there is a feeling that this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.
“One of the things we’re interested in besides developing a diagnostic test is, we want to make basically a toolbox for other people to use. We’ve already started that, designing molecular clones that can be used for drug screening.”
Zika virus was identified in 1947 in the Zika forest in Uganda. Its spread was limited to Africa and Southeast Asia until 2007. In recent years, it’s surfaced across Central and South America and as far north as Mexico.
Like Dengue, West Nile and Yellow Fever, Zika virus is a mosquito-borne tropical disease, meaning they transmit the disease to humans.
“We already have quite a bit of experience working with Dengue… it’s a related virus so we already know kind of what to expect but they are difference so we’ll find differences,” Kumar said. “We already had the system set up for Dengue so we are trying to adapt to the new virus and learn new things.”
Zika virus first appeared in Brazil in May 2015. Now, the country is dealing with pandemic levels of Zika virus as scientists try to figure out if the disease is tied to microcephaly, a rare condition in which babies are born with irregularly small heads and underdeveloped brains.
Part of the U of A’s research involves trying to figure out how the disease would get from the mother to the fetus.
“If you think of the cost—the health-care and personal cost—of having a child with microcephaly, it’s enormous,” Hobman said. “In many cases, children born with this condition die within the first year, but others can live relatively long lives, even those with severe mental and physical disabilities.”
Right now, there is no vaccine or antiviral therapy to treat the virus.
Only one in four people infected with Zika virus end up developing symptoms, health officials say. They include fever, joint pain, red eyes, rash and muscle pain, lack of energy and headaches. In most cases, symptoms disappear in less than a week.
Watch below: Global’s ongoing coverage of Zika virus
With files from Carmen Chai, Global News.
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