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May 24, 2017

Virologists: Zika virus invaded Florida multiple times in ’16

A new study led by an international group of scientists, including five from Florida Gulf Coast University, sheds light on how the Zika virus entered and circulated in Florida in 2016 and might do so again this year.

The Zika virus outbreak in Florida wasn’t a single virus introduction but rather at least four separate introductions that each led to local chains of transmission, according to research conducted by the scientists, including co-leaders Drs. Sharon Isern and Scott Michael of FGCU.

The virologists’ findings were published May 24 in the journal Nature just as mosquito season gets under way. Two other papers that further describe Zika transmission in the Americas, one of which is also co-authored by Isern and Michael, were published in the same issue of the journal.

Isern and Michael are experts in virology, having studied Florida outbreaks of the related dengue virus in Key West in 2009-10 and Port St. Lucie in 2013.

Drs. Sharon Isern and Scott Michael / Photo courtesy of Melissa Neubek, Eagle News

“We realized that our longstanding collaborations with the Miami-Dade Mosquito Control District and the Tampa Department of Health Laboratory would provide critical samples to track and understand this major outbreak of Zika virus,” Isern said.

They quickly reached out to other experts, including Dr. Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and Dr. Pardis Sabeti at Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

“The expertise of Drs. Sabeti and Andersen in sequencing and genomic analysis were critical to this multi-group effort,” Michael said.

Three recent FGCU graduates – Amanda Tan, Lauren Paul and Carolyn Barcellona – also took part and are authors on both papers.

Zika virus causes fevers, rash, headache, joint and muscle pain. It has also been linked to birth defects in some babies born to infected mothers, and can cause microcephaly, in which babies are born with underdeveloped heads and brain damage.

By studying the sequences of genomes – the complete blueprint of inheritable traits – from Zika viruses found in humans and mosquitoes, the researchers were able to show how individual viruses were related, similar to how DNA ancestry is used to discover family relationships in humans.

They discovered that instead of a single introduction sparking the outbreak in Florida, at least four distinct viral lineages became established and circulated in the state. Three spread through the Caribbean islands before reaching Florida while one spread through Central America, showing that Florida has been invaded multiple times and that more than one strain often circulated in a single area.

Florida is a likely location for Zika outbreaks, said Isern, because of the abundance of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which carry the virus, the climate and the fact that many people from the Miami area travel to countries in which the viruses are established.

The study’s main findings include:

*At least four distinct Zika virus introductions contributed to the Florida outbreak.

* Local transmission in Florida likely started in spring 2016 well before the first local case was confirmed.

*Most Florida introductions are linked to the Caribbean.

The spread of Zika in the Americas has been explosive. Since its first confirmed case in Brazil in May 2015, Zika has spread to 48 countries and territories in the Americas. It is primarily transmitted to humans by the bite of infected Aedes mosquitoes. / Image courtesy of Sharon Isern

Based on their findings, Isern and Michael believe that a similar transmission pattern is likely to emerge this year with multiple Zika virus lineages becoming established in the local mosquito population by infected people who have traveled in places where Zika is endemic. They expect to be able to determine where the viruses are originating and to compare the 2017 strains to those from 2016 to determine whether new introductions occurred or if those brought in during 2016 survived the winter and became established in Florida.

The research also indicated that mosquito control efforts in areas in which Zika virus was detected helped limit the spread of the disease. The scientists are hopeful that understanding what happened last year will help control efforts in 2017.

In addition to the FGCU scientists, the Florida study involved more than 60 researchers from 20 institutions, including the Scripps Research Institute, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, whose researchers were co-leaders with Isern and Michael; the University of Oxford, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Florida Department of Health, among others.

Other Nature articles on Zika:

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Other research dives into water quality, seafood safety

FGCU faculty research has advanced understanding of more than just the Zika and dengue viruses. Across the university, studies in a variety of fields are contributing to scientific knowledge that may change the world and our lives for the better. Most recently, students and faculty collaborated to establish the FGCU Cancer Research Program to promote and conduct research and community advocacy — more to come on that as the launch progresses.

 

Safer seafood

In work with implications for food safety and seafood lovers, Professor Michael Parsons is leading an international team researching factors that influence the occurrence of ciguatera fish poisoning, which is caused by eating fish contaminated with toxic chemicals produced by marine algae. About 50,000 people around the world are stricken with this type of food poisoning each year.

 

Cleaner air & water

Dr. Bill Mitsch, eminent scholar and director of FGCU’s Everglades Wetland Research Park, has long been researching the value of wetlands as filters for carbon in the atmosphere and other pollutants. Lately, he has teamed up with Collier County on a two-year study to monitor the progress and effectiveness of the wetlands in Naples’ Freedom Park in cleaning pollution from urban runoff during the rainy season.

 

Better business data

Just about any fact you’d ever want to know about the Southwest Florida economy has been researched and collected in the first Southwest Florida Economic Almanac, a 365-page publication of FGCU’s Regional Economic Research Institute (RERI). The almanac is divided into sections covering socio-economics, agriculture, health, education, housing, income and finance, charitable giving, government spending and assistance, real estate and many others.

 

Safer sports

Almost every organized faction of competitive athletics has taken steps to better identify and treat brain trauma, but Assistant Nursing Professor Paula Davis-Huffman identified an overlooked category: those who play club and intramural sports at colleges and universities. Davis-Huffman surveyed students in her doctoral research on these athletes and found that those who had suffered concussions seemed to have the least amount of knowledge of what to do if a concussion were suspected. Among her study’s recommendations: Sports clubs and intramural programs should mandate annual education for participants modeled after NCAA guidelines and implement a sideline assessment procedure when a concussion is suspected.

—Compiled by Drew Sterwald