What’s the deadliest creature on earth? Do sharks, crocodiles or snakes come to mind? Well, deaths from those creatures pale in comparison to mosquitoes.
Globally, mosquitoes kill more than 700,000 people a year. Researchers are now testing a vaccine that will protect people against one of those mosquito-borne diseases, the Zika virus.
Summer is just around the corner, a time for playgrounds, beaches and …mosquitoes.
“There’s a lot of mosquitoes out there and they carry a lot of diseases. They’re nasty pests,” said Sarah George, MD, an Infectious Disease Specialist at Saint Louis University.
Dr. George is one of several doctors chasing a vaccine for the Zika virus. Two years ago, an outbreak caused severe birth defects in thousands of babies across Central and South America.
“Something called microcephaly where the brain never develops properly, and the skull actually collapses. There’s not enough brain tissue to hold it up,” said Dr. George.
An effective vaccine could prevent that. Dr. George is testing one, a two-dose shot that contains an inactivated form of the virus. In the study, more than 90 percent of volunteers showed an immune response to Zika.
“Pregnancy is usually a wonderful thing. Nobody wants to be told, ‘I’m sorry. There’s something seriously wrong with your baby.’ Everyone wants to be protected against that and if a vaccine can do that, that’s wonderful,” Dr. George said.
Rachael Bradshaw, a prenatal genetic counselor who works with families at risk for having babies with birth defects, did not hesitate to volunteer for the study.
“It seemed like something I could do to help out, if we could find a way to protect babies in the future,” said Bradshaw.
She says getting the vaccine was easy; “It’s really no different than getting a flu shot.”
While Zika cases have dropped dramatically since that first outbreak, a vaccine could keep pregnant women and babies safe against future threats.
Dr. George stated, “We will have another Zika outbreak. We just don’t know when or where.”
In the 2016 outbreak, there were more than 5,000 Zika cases in the U.S. Most were among people returning from affected countries, but more than 200 cases came from mosquitoes in Florida and Texas. This year, more than a dozen cases have already been reported in the U.S. It’s important to note that the virus can be transmitted by sexual contact too, not just from mosquitoes.