Top public health leaders, physicians and scientists from the U.S. and Brazil discussed the ongoing research and study of the Zika virus in a packed ballroom in the Shalala Student Center on Wednesday.
The experts discussed at length the latest public health and ethical implications of scientific findings into the outbreak of the virus, which was declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization on February 1. The event registered about 240 visitors beforehand and 100 on site, according to the registration staff. The Miller School of Medicine presented the forum with the UHealth system.
Dr. Esper Kallas, who was born in Brazil, the country where the outbreak first started, spoke about the aggressive Aedes aegypti mosquito, the main viral transmitter of the Zika virus. Kallas is an infectious disease specialist and a professor of medicine at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
“It is very well adapted to urban areas where it can multiply rapidly in waters. This mosquito is fiercer than anything we have seen. It’s present almost everywhere,” Kallas said.
Dr. Kallas also spoke about one of the main causes of the Zika virus that has gripped the country: microcephaly, a condition in which infected pregnant women give birth to babies with unusually small heads and often damaged brains.
“Many people saw severe brain defects in newborns, where there can be inflammation in the brain, causing the skin of the head to collapse inwards,” Kallas said.
Kallas also spoke about what his country has gone through over the past few months.
“This epidemic has reached to the press; every day, someone is discussing about this virus. It is a good time to talk about science but we are struggling to communicate to the public what is really behind this epidemic,” Kallas said.
The surge of microcephaly started in the northeast region of Brazil. Kallas provided statistics showing that there were 907 confirmed microcephaly cases in 19 states of Brazil, with 79 percent of cases and 198 deaths coming from the northeast region.
Dr. John Beier, director of Environment and Public Health Sciences at the Miller School of Medicine, has researched the ecology and control of vector-borne diseases, including malaria and dengue. He said residents of Miami should take precautions because the virus-carrying mosquito resides in the city.
“I have Aedes aegypti in my backyard. Here in Miami, we are in a hot zone for mosquitoes,” Dr. Beier said. “Miami has a big red circle and if Zika were to come, it would come through South Florida. This is an Aedas problem, they adapt to their environment … We clean up the environment, give sanitation and access to water and drainage, we would not be having this problem today.”
Summer is a time when mosquito populations multiply, increasing the likelihood that Florida could be the door for the virus to enter.
“The Olympics will be held in Brazil and that will be a challenge. A lot of those travelers will come back to South Florida in the summer and there may be a storm. The virus may be brought back,” Beier said.
Despite the reality of the threat, Dr. Anna Likos, the Florida Department of Health state epidemiologist, said that the virus hadn’t reached Florida’s shores yet.
“As of Monday, March 23, we have had no cases of local transmission of Zika virus in Florida,” Likos said.
She says, however, that “71 cases of Zika-fever cases” have been present in 12 counties across South Florida, with Miami-Dade having the most at 45 percent. Yet none have been confirmed as the Zika virus. Likos stressed community preparedness to prevent the virus from spreading.
“Our partnership, working with the community such as asking people to use repellents, put up door hangers,” Likos said. “I very much believe this is due to our excellent collaboration with mosquito control … We do have a jump on Zika.”
The Florida Department of Health created three steps to seek treatment for Zika: identify, test and report.
Identifying Zika is done by asking if the person has traveled to areas with the virus activity, if they became ill while traveling or if, during the two weeks after their return, they reported two of the following symptoms: fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis, commonly known as pinkeye.
Second, a Zika virus test must be ordered if someone with identifying symptoms is pregnant, with the possibility of performing an ultrasound to determine if microcephaly is present in the fetus.
Lastly, report any suspected Zika or dengue cases to the local health office immediately to ensure appropriate confirmatory testing and mosquito control to ensure that the virus can be contained.
Dr. Kenneth Goodman, founder and director of the Miller School of Medicine’s Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy, said in his closing remarks that the event showed how the health community could come together for the greater good.
“We’ve got colleagues here from Brazil, from Cuba, from Canada, and it doesn’t happen very often,” Goodman said. “It’s an example of what a community does when we identify something that is both intellectually compelling and [concerns] the health of our population, and so I’m excited that we’re collectively able to rise to that occasion. It’s a real treat to be able to do that.”
William Riggin contributed to this report.