Using Technology to Fight the Zika Virus
The World Health Organization (WHO) called Zika an “explosive” epidemic that could infect more than four million people by the end of 2016. While traditional boots-on-the-ground treatments, such as spraying insecticides and eliminating pools of standing water, are being aggressively pursued, technology may have a key role to play.
Zika, first reported in 1947, features mild symptoms but can cause microcephaly, a condition in which children are born with small heads. There is currently no vaccine for the virus—one might be several years away at best. As such, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning to pregnant women thinking of traveling to 27 countries and regions.
Cell phones and mobile apps have proven useful in tracking malaria in Africa and dengue fever in Asia.
HealthMap, based in Boston, captures information on diseases globally (including Zika) from the press, medical personnel, researchers, social media and individuals. The volumes of data are mined and researchers are able to determine outbreaks, hot spots and disease movements.
The CDC developed an Epi Info viral hemorrhagic fever (VHF) app that lets people input information on those exposed to Zika, including names, gender, ages, locations, patient status and case classification. This allows expedited patient reports, more accurate predictive data models and better allocation of resources. However, identifying Zika symptoms has proven challenging. According to a CDC source, it is working on modeling activities, however the limited amount of available data on Zika virus infection makes it challenging.
Brazilian startup Colab.re launched an app that allows citizens to report symptoms and locations that may be ripe for harboring the disease. The app geolocates citizens’ reports, directs them to the relevant authorities and lets the government consult with residents.
Successful tests in the Caribbean and South America have shown that the introduction of genetically modified mosquitoes can cause local populations to crash. Research by British biotech company Oxitec indicated that by releasing 3.3 million engineered mosquitoes in Grand Cayman Island, the mosquito population decreased by 80%.
The genetic modification technology can involve inserting genes into an organism in such a way that it sterilizes the male mosquito, makes them less resistant to disease or makes them perish if they don’t receive a predetermined “antidote.” The Brazilian city of Piracicaba recently said it would expand the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to help fight the Zika virus.
Genetic modification is fraught with ethical questions. Will greatly reducing or eliminating an invasive species impact other indigenous species? Would genetic modification be used for less-than-life-saving pursuits, such as creating a child or house pet with a desired color eyes? An expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences is working on a report on responsible use of the technology.
Since this initial blog post in April 2016, there have been several developments:
- In addition to microcephaly, research shows Zika may be responsible for several other medical issues in unborn babies including damage to the nervous and muscular systems.
- Researchers are using increasingly advanced computer models to predict the spread of the disease.
- A human antibody, ZIKV-117, showed promising test results on pregnant mice and their unborn fetuses. Human clinical trials could begin as early as 2017.
- Zika is now in more than 40 countries, with cases reported in Australia, Asia and Africa.