UW-Madison researchers will begin launching experiments to study the Zika virus, according to a university news release.
The virus has remained arcane since its discovery 50 years ago in the Zika forest in Uganda. Previously, Zika was linked with causing flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache and joint pain. It is now acknowledged to have been under-studied and may be a possible cause of birth defects, such as underdeveloped brains and small heads.
With an international outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil and beyond, public health officials around the world are now worried about Zika’s connection to birth defects.
In January the National Institutes of Health gave Zika virus high research priority, and the groundwork underway in UW-Madison has led to NIH support for studies using macaques, monkeys with physiology and immune systems similar to humans.
Currently, it is known that Zika is less mutative than influenza viruses but the best immune response after using a vaccine remains unknown.
“We strongly suspect Zika infection during pregnancy is associated with birth defects such as microcephaly,” said Thomas Friedrich, a UW-Madison professor of pathobiological sciences. “But we don’t know how strong the link is, or what percentage of women who get infected might give birth to children with birth defects.”
The researchers hope to settle public anxiety with definite results from the studies.
“People want clear answers, and we want to be able to make clear public health recommendations,” Friedrich said.
The studies are expected to yield more information regarding the virus in 12 months.