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Scripps Researchers Create Disease Detecting Method To Uncover Zika Outbreaks

A female Aedes aegypti mosquito is shown in 2006.

Photo by James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control

Above: A female Aedes aegypti mosquito is shown in 2006.

Zika virus, a disease known to cause birth defects, has been on the decline since 2016. But a new study out Thursday in the journal Cell shows that in 2017 researchers from the Scripps Research Translational Institute were able to develop a methodology for detecting outbreaks. And it helped them find an unreported outbreak in Cuba.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

Much like Malaria, Zika virus is commonly transmitted through mosquitoes. It’s been around for a while, but in 2016 there was a sharp increase in cases. Since then the number of cases has declined.

Reported by Kris Arciaga

But the disease isn’t entirely gone. So, Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at Scripps, said he wanted to find out whether there were some outbreaks going undetected.

“So we had this big question. We don’t see Zika cases reported, but is the epidemic really over?” Andersen said.

Andersen and his team tested a methodology for detecting these cases. It involved two things — tracking where travelers went when they got the disease, and then looking at their biological samples — like blood or urine — to see genetically where and when their virus originated.

“We looked at what do travelers get. So travelers that come back into this country for example have been traveling around to Zika endemic countries, do any of these actually get infections?” Andersen said.

By coupling travelers’ geographic data with their actual biological data, Andersen said they could create a type of map to see where the disease may have originally started and where it could spread.

In 2017, this method helped these researchers discover an undetected outbreak in Cuba. Now, Andersen said he thinks this research could help public health authorities track other infectious diseases, like Dengue fever.

“Right now there’s a lot of Dengue activity around the world. And you can imagine doing something like this to actually potentially detect Dengue cases in regions or countries where you didn’t realize it wouldn’t be,” Andersen said.

Andersen said the tool would need to be coupled with existing public health reporting standards. He said it probably wouldn’t work in very rural areas where there are no travelers or existing reporting.

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Aired: August 23, 2019 | Transcript

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