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VMASC's Giles Develops Video Game to Educate about Zika

By Brendan O'Hallarn

The threat of Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease, appears to be receding in the United States, according for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

However, there is still risk of transmission of the disease, both through mosquito exposure and sexual contact. Zika remains a particular threat to pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant. Devastating birth defects can occur with Zika virus infection during pregnancy, including poor brain development, damage to the back of the eye, hearing loss and even miscarriage.

Old Dominion University researcher Bridget Giles conceived an innovative way to share information about Zika, inspired in part by her interest in infectious diseases and virtual reality education.

With a $75,000 seed grant from Old Dominion's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center, Giles, a research assistant professor at VMASC, has developed a workable video game called ZAP (Zika Awareness and Prevention).

Created in collaboration with Saikou Diallo, research associate professor; graphic designer Bato Cvijetic and programmer Caleb Ralph, the interactive game is designed to educate and strengthen families' ability to stop Zika.

"There's a lot of things that people don't know about Zika virus, like the fact that it can be sexually transmitted," said Giles. "Given research about experiential learning environments and how game based learning can be more effective than traditional learning methods, we decided to educate about Zika through serious gaming."

A video about ZAP demonstrates the creative graphic design and the critical thinking and problem solving aspects of the serious game.

The 3-D simulations in ZAP provide interactive educational exercises around individual protection practices, such as how to remove mosquito breeding sites around one's home, correct use of larvicide, placement of screens on windows and doors and how to dress to minimize mosquito bites.

Symptoms of Zika virus infection and special precautions recommended to pregnant women to prevent fetal transmission are also addressed.

Of course, like the most popular video games, ZAP also has a first-person shooter component. While tremendously fun, this part of the game also hones in on the importance of killing adult mosquitoes before they can bite. The ZAP players blast "insecticide" fog at invading mosquitoes before they have the opportunity to bite a child playing soccer. "That's everyone's favorite part," laughed Giles.

The game also includes CDC Zika videos, as well as trivia and matching games to test knowledge. The material covered is comprehensive. The game is also interactive enough that it could be modified to convey knowledge of other transmittable diseases.

"Enjoy the summer months, but don't forget to rid your yard of standing water where mosquitoes can breed like in buckets, toys and tires, and don't forget your insect repellent," Giles said.

The CDC has recently indicated that the risk of contracting the Zika virus is subsiding in the United States, however pregnant women particularly should take precautions to prevent mosquito bites.

Miami-Dade County, Florida previously designated as a Zika active transmission area recently had travel recommendations lifted. However it is possible that sporadic cases may still occur. Puerto Rico also has declared the Zika epidemic over due to a significant reduction of new cases. The Zika virus is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, which bites primarily during the day.

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