Zika virus effects extend to University campus

By Elyssa Kaufman

Tatiana Britto has a unique connection to the Zika virus. She currently calls Urbana-Champaign home while she studies as a visiting scholar at the University, but her two children still live at home in Brazil.

“I am concerned mostly for my kids because I am not sure, if they get the disease, how bad it will be,” Britto said. “As an adult, you’re stronger to the disease, but as a kid, it is more difficult.”

Britto, a Brazil-native herself, is a graduate student in Economics and is working toward her Ph.D.

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The Zika virus has been around since 1947, but in February 2016, the World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency. The spread of the virus throughout Brazil and into other Latin American countries has caused growing concerns.

The Centers for Disease Control is linking the virus to microcephaly, a severe birth defect found in newborns that causes issues related to brain and head size.

Britto said she’s not only concerned about her children, but her two pregnant friends also currently in Brazil.

“They are very worried about this virus, and they keep telling me that it’s a big deal to keep the mosquitoes away,” Britto said.

Britto is a public employee in Brazil and said that as a “public servant,” she has been receiving messages from the government. These messages are informing the public to help get rid of any source that can attract mosquitos.

Zika in Illinois Abroad

While the virus raises a concern in Latin America, the United States isn’t immune.

“We are concerned about the Zika virus getting into the United States and into Illinois,” said Phil Nixon, extension entomologist in the University’s Department of Crop Science. “It’s a virus that has been spreading rapidly, and we don’t know a lot about it, but it’s prevalent in areas of the Caribbean and South America.”

Nixon explained the Zika virus poses an issue for the University when it comes to international students, as well as students currently studying abroad.

“Foreign students that are coming in could be carrying the virus,” Nixon said. “It tends to be prevalent for three weeks, and during that time, the student could pick the virus up in their native country. Of course, students traveling abroad could pick it up as well, and once brought here, it could be a source.”

Andrea Bordeau, assistant director of international safety and security for the University’s study abroad program, oversees University faculty and students who are traveling abroad.

Though Nixon raised concern about the possibility of international students bringing the virus to the University, Bordeau said the virus “currently doesn’t pose an unreasonable threat to students and faculty abroad.”

However, Bordeau still believes awareness is important. She said she will continue to monitor Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for information on Zika, and share updates with students going to areas of concerns as is necessary and appropriate.

“Students traveling to regions where Zika is a concern have either received or will receive some communication from me sharing the CDC info page and guidance on prevention,” Bordeau said.

The Transmission

There are multiple ways Zika can be transmitted.

According to Nixon, the virus can be carried by two mosquitoes. The first is the yellow fever mosquito. The entomologist said the yellow fever mosquito is found in the southern part of the United States, but doesn’t get as far north as Illinois. The virus is also carried by the East Asian tiger mosquito, which can be found in Illinois.

Bordeau said the Zika virus is considered to be on a similar level to malaria and dengue fever.

However, the virus can also be transmitted sexually. Zika poses a more serious threat for certain demographics.

“What sets Zika apart is that it is a specific concern for women who are pregnant,” Nixon said. “Dengue and malaria are also transmitted by mosquito and are common travel considerations to areas where they are present.”

However, Nixon explained that most people think the disease will have no symptoms or mild flulike symptoms. For some people, however, the virus can cause more severe problems.

“Of course, our biggest concern (is) people that are pregnant and having permanent damage to their unborn fetus,” Nixon said.

Virus Prevention

To prevent the infection, awareness of the virus is important in order to lower the chances of being infected, as both Bordeau and Nixon stated.

Britto said her husband and family are removing plants or containers from her home that accumulate water or placing different products in the water of plants to ensure that it does not attract mosquitoes.

In addition, because the virus is getting worse, her husband is planning to put mosquito repellent on her kids every day, using a repellent device that can be plugged into an outlet in their home.

Britto’s also mentioned her seven-months-pregnant friend puts mosquito nets up on her walls due to the immediate danger the virus poses to pregnant women. With cases becoming worse, she is nervous to go back to Brazil, but she hopes the outbreak will pass.

“This is a puzzle that needs to be solved, but we don’t know if it will be very bad or something the government and public health can deal with,” Britto said.

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