K-State researcher: The Zika risk is real for America's Olympians

Published: Jul. 13, 2016 at 10:59 PM CDT
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Researchers at K-State Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI) are on the front lines of finding a vaccine for the Zika Virus. It's top of mind right now for athletes dropping out of the Olympics in Brazil over health concerns.

According to the Center for Disease Control, Zika cases in Rio are more than triple the country's average. The growing concern has produced a growing effort to find a vaccine.

"Will we have a vaccine? I'm confident that we will. Could it be produced fairly soon? Yea, maybe within months or a year or so," said Dr. Stephen Higgs, research director at BRI.

Zika Virus has been studied at BRI for several years now. Dr. Higgs has been there for about five years, and has learned the disease spreads fast.

"It is a concern," he said.

If it's the right mosquito, the Zika infected blood they feed off of will infect its cells. Their next bite could then transmit the virus to another human victim.

The two kinds of mosquitoes that carry the disease are not studied at BRI, but Dr. Higgs says they are able to study the virus itself.

"The Center for Disease Control very kindly provided us when the real virus, which is being transmitted in the America's at the moment," said Dr. Higgs.

The CDC released two maps a few months ago showing that mosquitoes carrying the virus are buzzing through northern states, including Kansas.

Under Dr. Higgs supervision, a team of about 100 people is putting the virus into mosquitoes to see how long it survives.

"The mosquitoes that transmit Zika may only live a few weeks, and knowing how quickly they get infected is important," said Dr. Higgs.

From the mosquitoes, the question is what happens in humans? So, BRI also has sent the virus to an institute in Maryland called Bioqual, where it's being tested on primates.

"The focus is looking at disease development, which is similar to people, so we can better understand what happens with people," said Dr. Higgs.

The answer is especially important in South American countries, like Brazil, where infected mosquitoes flourish, and where millions of people will visit in the next month for the 2016 Olympics.

Four of the world's top golfers have dropped out of the competition. Jason Day said in a tweet, he's concerned the virus will present risks to his wife's future pregnancies and future members of their family.

Dr. Higgs says it's a viable concern, as there have been sexually transmitted cases reported.

"Obviously, the big concern with Zika is the affect on pregnant women. In particular, the severe, sometimes fatal, birth defects," said Dr. Higgs.

Dr. Higgs says with 1,100 cases already reported in the U.S., a cure is important.