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Year in Review

Zika cases are down, but researchers prepare for the virus’s return

Plenty of questions remain about transmission and vaccine development

8:26am, December 13, 2017
1-month-old baby with microcephaly

ZIKA'S IMPRINT  Zika’s spread through the Americas, with the associated birth defects and other maladies, was one of the top stories last year. It remained an important science story in 2017.

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One of the top stories of 2016 quietly exited much of the public’s consciousness in 2017. But it’s still a hot topic among scientists and for good reasons. After Zika emerged in the Western Hemisphere, it shook the Americas, as reports of infections and devastating birth defects swept through Brazil and Colombia, eventually reaching the United States. In a welcome turn, the number of Zika cases in the hemisphere this year dropped dramatically in the hardest-hit areas.

But few scientists are naïve enough to think we’ve seen the last of Zika. “The clock is ticking for when we will see another outbreak,” says Andrew Haddow, a medical entomologist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md.

Researchers’ to-do list for tackling this once-unfamiliar virus is daunting. But progress has been made, especially in learning more about Zika’s biology and interactions with its hosts, and in developing a safe and effective vaccine.

In 2017, the epidemic lost steam because many areas have probably developed herd immunity to the virus (SN: 11/11/17, p. 12). Zika infected a large number of people, who are now presumably immune, and those exposed provide indirect protection to people who haven’t yet encountered Zika. If the mosquito-borne virus can’t find enough people to infect, it can’t easily spread.

But Zika doesn’t rely only on mosquitoes to get around. This year, researchers learned more about how the virus spreads through sexual intercourse. In humans, Zika can persist in semen for close to three months (SN Online: 2/14/17), researchers learned. And Haddow and colleagues reported in the August Emerging Infectious Diseases that four of eight macaques exposed to the virus vaginally developed infections as did seven of eight macaques that received the virus via the rectum.

Bodily fluid breakdown

In 95 percent of people tested, Zika RNA is cleared from the blood by 54 days after symptoms begin, and urine by 39 days. In 95 percent of men tested, Zika RNA disappears from semen by 81 days. Few people in the study had detectible levels of Zika RNA in saliva or vaginal secretions.

In the wild, animals can act as reservoirs for Zika between human outbreaks. A small number of black-striped capuchin monkeys and common marmosets in a region of Brazil with high numbers of human cases were found to carry the virus already, the first such report among New World monkeys (SN: 3/4/17, p. 15). But there’s still a lot to learn about how the virus is maintained long-term in nature, Haddow says.

Convinced that Zika is here to stay and especially concerned about its effects during pregnancy (SN Online: 3/2/17), researchers have rushed to develop vaccines (SN: 3/18/17, p. 12). In its first test in humans, reported online October 4 in the New England Journal of Medicine, one vaccine based on DNA from the virus elicited an immune response, with 100 percent of participants developing antibodies after a three-dose regimen. Another DNA vaccine, developed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., is in a second round of human testing.

Attention to the virus may wane further. But the risk to public health remains, and interventions are still needed, such as ongoing monitoring that tracks Zika and other infectious diseases in pregnancy, says Denise Jamieson, an obstetrician gynecologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “We’re not ready for another emerging infectious disease that may disproportionately affect pregnant women or their fetuses or babies,” she says. “And we need to be.”


P. Tebas et al. Safety and immunogenicity of an anti-Zika virus DNA vaccine – preliminary report. New England Journal of Medicine. Published online October 4, 2017. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1708120.

A. Haddow et al. High infection rates for adult macaques after intravaginal or intrarectal inoculation with Zika virus. Emerging Infectious Diseases. Vol. 23, August 2017, p. 1274. doi: 10.3201/eid2308.170036.

Further Reading

A. Cunningham. Zika hasn’t been in the news much, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Science News. Vol. 192, November 11, 2017, p. 12.

T.H. Saey. A mutation may explain the sudden rise in birth defects from Zika. Science News. Vol. 192, October 28, 2017, p. 9.

L. Biel. The Zika epidemic began long before anyone noticedScience News. Vol. 191, June 24, 2017, p. 12.

L. Hamers. Zika hides out in body’s hard-to-reach spots. Science News. Vol. 191, May 27, 2017, p. 10.

M. Rosen. DNA may offer rapid road to Zika vaccineScience News. Vol. 191, March 18, 2017, p. 12.

T.H. Saey. Zika virus ‘spillback’ into primates raises risk of future human outbreaksScience News. Vol. 191, March 4, 2017, p. 15.

L. Hamers. Certain birth defects are on the rise since Zika arrived in the U.S. Science News Online, March 2, 2017.

M. Rosen. See how long Zika lasts in semen and other bodily fluids. Science News Online, February 14, 2017.

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