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Texas University Researchers Lead Zika Border Project

Two University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) professors will lead Zika research along the Texas-Mexico border as part of a multi-institutional consortium to establish a Western Gulf Center for Excellence for Vector-borne Diseases. They hope to create an early warning system to curtail the spread of the virus.

In December, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded a $10 million Texas grant shared by the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, UT-Austin, UT-El Paso, UTRGV, and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension to study emerging and exotic pathogens like Zika. These funds originated from a $40 million award the CDC divvied up among four named vector-borne disease regional centers of excellence: UTMB, the University of Florida, the University of Wisconsin, and Cornell University, Breitbart Texas reported.

UTRGV will receive more than $500,000 over five-years to enhance surveillance efforts in cooperation with local public health and vector-control agencies, said university officials. Dr. Christopher Vitek, associate professor of biology, and Dr. John Thomas, assistant professor of biology, will study the area’s most common mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, carriers of Zika and other area mosquito-borne viruses like West Nile, dengue fever, and chikungunya.

“The overall goal is to improve the potential speed for responding to any outbreaks of these, or related, diseases,” Vitek said in a UTRGV press release. “We hope to increase collaborative research efforts between the participating universities and agencies.”

The researchers intend to use part of the funds to test mosquito samples captured in the Texas border counties of Hidalgo, Cameron, and Starr. Vitek told the Monitor they hope to create a warning system to avert the spread of Zika. He added that the university has not received any funding yet but they would like to be operational by late spring since the region experienced a mild winter and that could mean more mosquitoes as summer approaches.

February 1 marked the first anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring Zika a public health emergency. With falling infection rates, WHO lifted that designation in November, shifting to a long-term strategy, largely focused on the most vulnerable population, pregnant women and their unborn babies, who are susceptible to Zika-linked microcephaly, the birth defect where newborns have small heads as a result of brains that never fully develop. In July, the first Texas baby was born with Zika-related microcephaly. In August, the state confirmed its first infant Zika-linked microcephaly fatality.

On Wednesday, WHO cautioned all countries must remain vigilant against the virus, even though the numbers of people contracting Zika are down in highly impacted areas like Brazil and Latin America, according to Reuters.

Last year, Texas became the second U.S. state to experience a “transmission cycle,” which occurs when indigenous mosquitoes get infected and spread Zika through their bites. In November, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) announced the state’s first local mosquito-borne Zika infection in the border city of Brownsville. By mid-December, the CDC issued a travel warning for individuals living or visiting Brownsville in Cameron County after health officials confirmed more locally transmitted Zika. By year’s end, Brownsville reported six cases. DSHS also identified its first case of laboratory-confirmed Zika in a pregnant Texas woman who did not travel outside the state. The Bexar County resident visited Brownsville in Cameron County while Zika cases erupted from local mosquitoes.

To date, the CDC accounted for 4,930 Zika cases nationwide. Of the 219 individuals who acquired the virus through local mosquitoes, 213 of them reside in Florida, six in Texas. All other instances were travel related, including 40 sexually transmitted cases. The DSHS reported 300 combined Zika cases in 2015-16.  As of January 27, two Zika cases occurred in 2017, one in Brazoria, the other in Lubbock.

Follow Merrill Hope, a member of the original Breitbart Texas team, on Twitter.

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