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The Zika Virus Can Kill Adult Brain Cells

Zika Virus

First pregnant women — now it's time for the rest of us to worry about the mosquito-borne, sexually transmitted disease.

Most Americans — even those of us who have been reading articles or watchin news clips about the Zika virus have been led to assume we needn't worry if we aren't pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant in the future. In fact, scientists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have assured us we aren't at risk for anything more than some flu-like symptoms.  Turns out, they were wrong.

Zika is an epidemic spreading faster than many of us care to think. It can be transmitted through mosquito bites or by having unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex (in fact it's the only vector disease known to be transmitted by both); and while the worst outbreaks have been in places like Brazil, Columbia, and Venezuela, it has now hit mainland America. 

At least 69 pregnant women have been infected with Zika in Florida, reports CBS News. 37 have confirmed to be locally transmitted cases in Wynwood and South Beach. These two areas are now designated as “Zika Zones,” but researchers still remain concerned about how rapid the virus may travel across U.S. ­states.

Zika is a hard nut to crack because 80% of infections do not cause systems. Adults might carry the virus for months at a time without knowing it. While it’s only been thought to effect babies born from an infected mother — causing serious birth defects like microcephaly, which keeps the skull and brain from growing — it is now presumed that Zika can kill stem cells in adults too.

A study released in the journal Cell Stem Cell shows that Zika killed crucial stem cells in the brains of adult mice. Researchers speculate the virus can harm similar parts in an adult human brain, particularly areas handling memory and learning.

The research is still new, however. In that particular study researchers used only one strain of the virus and one type of mice; so to be clear, it is uncertain whether or not Zika will have similar effects on other mammals such as humans. But the ultimate takeaway is that the virus potentially leads to what researchers call “cell death” a process in which neural growth and regeneration is slowed drastically over a period of time.

To date, there are only two Food and Drug Administration authorized Zika tests. One was released in April as part of an Emergency Use Authorization and was only meant for a select group of people who have traveled to countries where Zika was prevalent.

A second Zika test was approved in the last two weeks, which aims to find another way the virus can be identified. However, both tests have only been made available to those who meet specific criteria: pregnant women or people who have traveled to Zika affected zones.

To get a better idea on how fast Zika can spread, Kelly McBride Folkers broke it down in a recent New York Times article by explaining a value called the basic reproduction number she describes as an “estimate of how many people you are likely to infect if you get sick.”

If the number is less than one it’s thought that the infectious agent will die out. For example, as Folkers explained, it is estimated that the basic reproduction number for HIV is between two and five, which means HIV-positive people are likely to infect at least over five people if left untreated and unprotected just as easily as someone with the flu can infect two people on a train from a simple sneeze.

Though the basic reproduction for Zika is hard to interpret, seeing as its spread by mosquitos and sex, studies have shown its numbers to be as high as six in countries like Columbia.

But fear not. If it makes you feel better, a Zika vaccine is in the works through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and has recently begun human trials, but it will not be on the market for a few years. Only time will tell how affective these vaccines may be, but until we know for sure it’s always best to take precaution.

Experts say the best way to stay uninfected is to always pack bug spray — everywhere! Layer it on, wear cover up clothing, and always practice safe sex. Turns out, a bug bite isn't just a bug bite anyore. 

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David Artavia