Zika and Birth Defects: The Evidence Mounts

Zike virus infection

Caption: Human neural progenitor cells (gray) infected with Zika virus (green) increased the enzyme caspase-3 (red), suggesting increased cell death.
Credit: Sarah C. Ogden, Florida State University, Tallahassee

Recently, public health officials have raised major concerns over the disturbing spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus among people living in and traveling to many parts of Central and South America [1]. While the symptoms of Zika infection are typically mild, grave concerns have arisen about its potential impact during pregnancy. The concerns stem from the unusual number of births of children with microcephaly, a very serious condition characterized by a small head and damaged brain, coinciding with the spread of Zika virus. Now, two new studies strengthen the connection between Zika and an array of birth defects, including, but not limited to, microcephaly.

In the first study, NIH-funded laboratory researchers show that Zika virus can infect and kill human neural progenitor cells [2]. Those progenitor cells give rise to the cerebral cortex, a portion of the brain often affected in children with microcephaly. The second study, involving a small cohort of women diagnosed with Zika virus during their pregnancies in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, suggests that the attack rate is disturbingly high, and microcephaly is just one of many risks to the developing fetus. [3]

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Creative Minds: Exploring the Health Effects of Fracking

Elaine Hill

Elaine Hill

A few years ago, Elaine Hill was a doctoral student in applied economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, studying maize markets in Uganda [1] and dairy supply chains in the northeastern U.S [2]. But when fracking—a controversial, hydraulic fracturing technique used to produce oil and natural gas—became a hot topic in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Hill was motivated to shift gears.

After watching a documentary about fracking, Hill decided to search for scientific evidence on its possible health effects, but found relatively little high-quality data. So, she embarked on a new project—one that eventually earned her a Ph.D.—to evaluate what, if any, impact fracking has on infant and child health. Now, supported by a 2015 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Hill is pursuing this line of research further as an assistant professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, NY.

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Zika Virus: An Emerging Health Threat

Credit: Kraemer et al. eLife 2015;4:e08347

For decades, the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus was mainly seen in equatorial regions of Africa and Asia, where it caused a mild, flu-like illness and rash in some people. About 10 years ago, the picture began to expand with the appearance of Zika outbreaks in the Pacific islands. Then, last spring, Zika popped up in South America, where it has so far infected more than 1 million Brazilians and been tentatively linked to a steep increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly, a very serious condition characterized by a small head and brain [1]. And Zika’s disturbing march may not stop there.

In a new study in the journal The Lancet, infectious disease modelers calculate that Zika virus has the potential to spread across warmer and wetter parts of the Western Hemisphere as local mosquitoes pick up the virus from infected travelers and then spread the virus to other people [2]. The study suggests that Zika virus could eventually reach regions of the United States in which 60 percent of our population lives. This highlights the need for NIH and its partners in the public and private sectors to intensify research on Zika virus and to look for new ways to treat the disease and prevent its spread.

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LabTV: Curious About Improving American Indian Health

Deana Around HimNovember is National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, and so I can’t think of a better time to introduce you to Deana Around Him, a social and behavioral health researcher active in efforts to improve the health of infants and children in native communities. Deana is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, where she grew up with her mother and sisters after losing her father to a car accident when she was only 3 years old.

Deana’s father was a pharmacist, and, as a child, Deana thought that she would follow in his footsteps. But after participating in the National Youth Leadership Forum for Medicine one summer in high school, she set her sights instead on a career in medicine and made her way to Brown University, Providence, RI. Attending an Ivy League school was something she “never in her wildest dreams imagined” as a kid.

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Creative Minds: Lessons from Halfway Around the Globe

Transporting a patient in Nepal

Caption: Duncan Maru (right) and Community Health Director Ashma Baruwal (left) evaluating a patient in rural Nepal.
Credit: Allison Shelley

A decade ago, as a medical student doing volunteer work at a hospital in India’s capital of New Delhi, Duncan Maru saw a young patient who changed the course of his career: a 12-year-old boy in a coma caused by advanced tuberculosis (TB). Although the child had been experiencing TB symptoms for four months, he was simply given routine antibiotics and didn’t receive the right drugs until his parents traveled hundreds of miles at considerable expense to bring him to a major hospital. After five weeks of intensive treatment, the boy regained consciousness and he was able to walk and talk again.

That’s quite an inspiring story. But it’s also a story that haunted Maru because he knew that if this boy had access to good primary care at the local level, his condition probably never would have become so critical. Determined to help other children and families in similar situations, Maru has gone on to dedicate himself to developing innovative ways of providing high-quality, low-cost health care in developing areas of the world. His “lab” for testing these efforts? The South Asian nation of Nepal—specifically, the poverty-stricken, rural district of Achham, which is located several hundred miles west of the national capital of Kathmandu.

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