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Students, Faculty Make D.C. Trip to Learn about Zika, Infectious Diseases

By Irv Harrell

Old Dominion University's Center for Global Health, in collaboration with several schools and programs in the College of Health Sciences, planned for an inter-professional group of faculty and students to travel to South America and the Caribbean this spring. But because of growing concerns regarding the Zika virus outbreak, the trip was cancelled, and with it the study-abroad plans of students who would have had a chance to learn firsthand about health concepts in a developing country.

But Dr. Muge Akpinar-Elci, director of the center, was determined to find an alternative.

"We wanted to provide another option to our students to explore Zika at home," she said. "We also wanted to show them that in the global health setting we need to be flexible. Everything can change."

Using her contacts at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., Akpinar-Elci made that vision possible.

At 6 a.m., on April 22, a group of eight students and three college faculty boarded a van at Old Dominion University and headed north to Rockville, Md. Their destination: the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Their mission: to learn more about the virus that altered their study plans.

Patricia Carlisle, an American Association for the Advancement of Science's Science and Technology fellow with NIAID, and her team of researchers set up a Zika Virus Information Workshop for the group from ODU. Among the program's objectives were:

  • Gain a general understanding of the biology, epidemiology and clinical issues associated with the virus
  • Develop an overarching understanding of the NIAID response to emerging infectious diseases, using the Zika outbreak as a current relevant example
  • Gain insight into the government's response to this type of crisis (funding, multiple agency coordination, etc.)
  • Gain an appreciation for the knowledge gaps and what actions need to be taken to protect the public's health
  • And spur ideas and conversation to start developing a community education campaign in Norfolk.

Taking the all-day excursion were faculty members Sharon Stull, dental hygiene; Christine Sump, nursing; Deborah Gray, nursing; dental hygiene students Jamis Bonanno, Samantha Black, and Rebecca Behling; nursing students Janelle Carolus and Claudia Christino; EVMS/ODU Masters in Public Health Program students Thomas Smail and Emmyrose Khan; and My Ngoc Nguyen, a Ph.D. student in Health Sciences Research. Bonanno, a senior, said she was initially disheartened to learn that the Guatemalan trip had been scrubbed.

"When I heard the news the trip was canceled, naturally I was very disappointed," she said. "I had worked very long and hard to prepare for this trip and was really looking forward to the experience of providing oral health care to those in need in a Third World country."

As she found out more about the Zika virus and the threat it posed to travelers in that region, the decision started to make sense, said Bonanno, who will graduate this month.

NIAID's mission is to provide leading research to understand, treat, and prevent infectious, immunologic and allergic diseases. The agency has the second-largest operating budget of the 27 agencies in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with more than $4.4 billion allocated in fiscal year 2016.

NIAID speakers gave the student group an up-close look at the Aedes Aegypti mosquito - the vector mostly responsible for spreading the virus. It originated from Africa, spends a lot of its time around houses and likes to bite during daytime hours, they were told.

Once contracted, the Zika virus can be sexually transmitted, and resides in males' sperm for a month or two. The symptoms for adults contracting the virus are fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, headache and muscle pain, which last two to seven days. But the virus is also linked to microcephaly, a condition in which a baby's head is significantly smaller than expected, as well as Guillain-Barre syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves. As of April 27, there were 426 cases of Zika reported in the U.S., 36 them in pregnant women and eight of them sexually transmitted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The best way to control the outbreak now is to control the vector," NIH researcher Dr. Mark Chaullberg told students during the workshop.

Faculty member Christine Sump was impressed by the level of knowledge shared at the workshop and looked forward to sharing it upon her return to ODU.

"As health care providers who interact with the public, we can now educate our patients and others on what is known regarding the Zika virus," she said. "The latest information on protection, latency period, diagnosis, and complications were all very valuable pieces of information on this virus of which there are many speculations via the news and word of mouth."

The researchers also discussed coordinated efforts involving several federal agencies to battle Zika.

"The commitment of resources and time to the Zika virus on the part of our government really impressed me," said faculty member Deborah Gray.

Natalie Aviles, with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), spoke about the painstaking process of developing a vaccine - from clinical trials and working with the international community to validation panels and protecting the blood supply.

"There is no possible way that we'll have a useful vaccine very soon," said NIH researcher Stephanie Coomes. "If you are planning to travel to the Caribbean or South America, you have to think carefully, especially women of child-bearing age."

After the two-and-a-half hour workshop, NIAID researchers answered additional questions posed by the ODU faculty and students.

Thomas Smail, one of the ODU students, said the workshop delivered a ton of information, some good and some bad.

"Fortunately, humans can build an immunity to the virus after the first infection...," he said. "But there are still many unknowns about the virus itself."

Akpinar-Elci was pleased with the success of the workshop, but said the experience won't stop there.

"Our students will work with local health departments to increase awareness of Zika and with their mosquito control programs," she said. "It will be a great service learning project for our students and also will strengthen ODU's connection with our communities."

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