AZ researchers focus on Zika virus, mosquitoes

Arizona scientists and researchers haven’t stopped their efforts to discover new information on the Zika virus and the mosquito that carries it even as officials in Washington, D.C., battle over emergency funding to fight the virus.

The Riehle Lab at the University of Arizona houses thousands of mosquitoes, about 50 of which researchers intentionally infected with Zika.

“We’re one of the few labs that are actually capable of infecting the mosquitoes with different disease agents, particularly with the dengue virus and the Zika virus,” said Michael Riehle, a professor of entomology at the University of Arizona.

Video courtesy of Cronkite News

Riehle and his staff at the mosquito research lab want to develop a better understanding of the Aedes aegypti, one of the species of mosquito capable of transmitting the Zika virus.

“We’re trying to understand the basic mechanisms of how the virus infects the mosquito, how it’s transmitted and how the mosquito picks it up,” Riehle said. “The mosquito is pretty well understood. It’s been studied for many years because of all the other diseases it transmits, but Zika is not a new virus. It’s a newly emerging virus, and it does some things differently than other diseases.”

People first identified the virus in Uganda in 1947, according to the World Health Organization. But in 2015, Zika began spreading throughout Brazil and other South American regions before reaching the United States.

There are 30 cases of the Zika infection throughout Arizona, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. In all of the cases, residents had returned to the state after traveling to Zika-infected areas.

The department’s lab in Phoenix also conducts clinical tests on blood samples from residents with a travel history.

“Arizona’s public health laboratory was one of the first three public health laboratories in the country that could do Zika virus testing,” said Jessica Rigler, the branch chief of public health preparedness for the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The state lab is part of the Centers for Disease Control’s Laboratory Response Network, which approved Zika testing in Arizona at an early stage because of the high volume of mosquitoes in the state.

Researchers at the lab hope these clinical tests will lead to new information about this disease.

“Zika virus is a really scary disease because we’re still learning about it, and we know it can cause some pretty severe outcomes for pregnant women and their babies,” Rigler said.

The infection can be transmitted sexually and lead to microcephaly, a birth defect where the baby’s head is abnormally small.

Vanessa Tedesco, a 34-year-old Avondale resident, said she has no concern about Zika – even during her ninth pregnancy.

“I thought it was another overinflated scare like Ebola. It kind of just disappeared and phased out, and I feel that this could be the same thing,” she said. “There’s other things to be more vigilant about than the Zika virus.”

But some officials see the virus as a much bigger threat.

On Tuesday, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton joined more than 75 other mayors across the country to urge Congress to break its gridlock and pass emergency Zika funding.

President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding in February. Since Congress has not acted, the National Institutes of Health has diverted $670 million from other areas to fund Zika research, according to the city of Phoenix.

“Zika is no longer an abstract threat in the United States,” Stanton said in a statement. “Communities across the country are looking to Congress for leadership. The inaction has to end now.”

Officials urge residents to avoid traveling to Zika-infected areas, dispose of containers with standing water and practice safe sex to reduce the risk of sexual transmission.

By Zack Moran, Cronkite News