From deformed newborns to menacing looking mosquitos, the Zika virus has scared parents and kids all over the world. But NYU Professor of Biology and Public Health Elodie Ghedin hopes to calm the hysteria.
Ghedin was recently awarded a one million dollar grant by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to expand her work on the Zika virus. Her research focuses on infected individuals by examining blood, urine and saliva samples to study the virus within different tissues.
“We’re essentially decoding the host response to infection to look at certain patterns of gene expression,” Ghedin said. “This helps us identify why certain individuals have a severe infection while others do not.”
When asked about the future of the virus, Ghedin says it is unclear whether Zika is here to stay, as it may be an epidemic or endemic. An epidemic comes and goes, similar to a sudden wave of disease. This is the opposite of an endemic, which entails year-round transmission and is not a one-time event.
Gallatin sophomore Mairead McConnell said she contracted Zika during spring break in Cancun earlier this year. She was sitting poolside without insect repellant and got bitten by mosquitoes. McConnell felt drained for two weeks and found it difficult to keep up with her classes.
“Zika is a virus, so there is nothing you can do other than rest,” McConnell said. “It’s just like mono — you are out of commission for a short time and then you are back to normal.”
While Zika can be spread through sexual contact during an active infection, it mainly poses a significant risk for those who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant because there is a heightened risk of neurological birth defects like microcephaly. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that in most adults, Zika is a minor, non-life threatening illness.
There is conflicting advice for students looking to travel in Zika-affected areas. Arthur Caplan, a professor at NYU Langone, recommends all individuals of reproductive age to avoid travel to so-called Zika “hot zones,” and to take necessary precautions such as using mosquito nets and practicing safe sex.
In May, Caplan, along with other prominent scientists and ethicists, had signed a letter urging the Rio Olympics to be cancelled.
“We were very concerned that the spread of Zika might be accelerated by the athletes, tourists, and journalists visiting a Zika hot zone — through mosquitoes, sex or blood donations by infected people,” Caplan said.
On the other hand, Gallatin junior Alison Del Handel said the Zika narrative is very different elsewhere than it is in the United States, and when she did research in Sao Paulo, many of her local friends commented about how the American and European media was blowing the situation out of proportion.
“You would be shocked by how unconcerned the average city-dwelling Brazilian is about Zika,” Del Handel said. “It is really only harmful if you are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant, so please do not not go to Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro or Santiago or wherever, because you’ll miss out on an amazing part of the world.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 12 print edition. Email Lavanya Shukla at [email protected]