The Science of Zika: New Insights

Zika is a relatively new virus. It was accidentally discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda. Scientists from the Yellow Fever Research Institute discovered the virus during a routine surveillance check for yellow fever. The name of the virus comes from the word “ziika” which means “overgrown” in Luganda. Zika is now found around the world and has been a growing concern since the outbreak in Brazil started to spread rapidly around South America in 2015.         
New research is shining a light on the virus’s evolutionary development leading to new insight on how the virus spreads.

The virus belongs to a long list of viruses in the genus known as flavivirus. The name originated from the word “flavus” which is Latin for yellow. Yellow fever was the first virus in this family that also includes West Nile, dengue, chikungunya and tick-borne encephalitis viruses.

A team of scientists from Rome, Italy, have created a model that shows Zika’s diversity and how the virus has evolved. The study of the Zika virus was led by Dr. Ciccozzi and Dr. Angeletti from the University Campus Bio-Medico. An evolutionary analysis of the virus showed two types of genotypes, African and Asiatic, and two separate clades. The first clade represents African gene sequences and the second clade represents sequences of Asiatic and Brazilian origin. The Brazilian sequences are closely related to a French Polynesian sequence, supporting the  hypothesis of how the Zika virus showed up in Brazil. During the Va’a World Sprint Canoeing Championship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2014, a team from French Polynesia participated. This supports the hypothesis that Zika virus was introduced during this time and not during the World Cup where no teams from French Polynesia or other Pacific countries participated.

“Understanding the differences and similarities between Zika and other flaviviruses is essential if effective drugs, vaccines and Zika-specific immunological tests for large population screening are to be designed,” the authors of the study say. This new research will help to understand how the infection spreads and how the immune system reacts to the virus.

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