The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Zika virus “a global health emergency,” according to the WHO website. In efforts to combat the infection, Gov. Rick Scott awarded a budget proposal of $25 million to the Florida Department of Health to be distributed in 34 awards across the state of Florida.
USF is the recipient of the third largest grant — a $2.5 million award — to research a vaccination to prevent the infection, identify lasting effects and create cost-effective testing methods for the Zika virus, according to FLgov.com.
As of Feb. 1, 2017, there have been a total of 4, 973 identified cases of the Zika virus in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. Although the prevalence of the virus decreases in colder months, the virus is expected to return more aggressive as the warmer climate sets in.
One in five people develop mild symptoms of the disease like fever, headaches and joint pain, according to the New York Times. However, the results are drastic if a pregnant woman is infected. The virus can result in serious brain damage and microcephaly, a skull deformity, for the unborn child.
While another symptom, Guillain-Barré, a form of temporary paralysis, is thought to be a correlation to the infection, additional research is needed immediately for conformation, according to the NYT.
Scott’s budget proposal recommends the health department agency spend $1.9 million to hire 21 epidemiologists for disease research and control to help fight Zika and other public health threats, according to the Miami Herald.
In a collaborative effort, the Hillsborough Department of Health, College of Medicine and the USF School of Public Health will come together to find preventative and solvable measures for the infection
“On the team, we have neurologists, immunologists, infectious disease experts and global health experts,” said Dr. Thomas Casale, USF professor of Internal Medicine at the College of Medicine. “This is to get a number of people with different expertise to attack the Zika virus and develop new diagnostics and preventative measures like vaccines for the virus.”
In the department of Internal Medicine, Casale will be working closely with specialty researchers in the division of infectious diseases, allergy and immunology.
With 12 people on the USF team, basic immunologists and neurologists proficient in lab technology will study mechanisms of drugs and vaccines to understand immune response of individuals infected with Zika.
Six companies, along with the National Institute of Health, are combining their collaborative efforts to work on various vaccination approaches to protect people from Zika.
“In our partnership with companies who are currently working on solving the infection will establish collaborative enterprise and network to address other emerging infectious diseases in a cohesive and rapid fashion,” said Casale.
Right behind finding the vaccine, one of the second goals of the project is to recruit USF students.
“Our plan is to implement courses graduate or undergraduate students can take and then apply to work on the project,” said Casale.
USF students are encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity to get involved with this research.
“Students will understand more about infectious diseases like Zika, how to conduct research and the chance to be a clinician to a basic scientist and engage in this important research,” said Casale.