Florida universities take lead on Zika research and awareness

Institutions statewide preparing for outbreak with campaigns for students, campus treatments

Three weeks after initial reports of Zika virus infection in Miami surfaced nationally, Florida health and legislative officials are now preparing for the possibility of an epidemic that some experts say could rival outbreak in Puerto Rico, which infects about 1,000 residents weekly.

And while little is known about the disease spread by mosquito bites and sexual intercourse, colleges and universities throughout Florida are preparing with awareness campaigns for students, and treatments of main campuses for harvesting areas of infected insects.

Officials recently confirmed 25 known cases of Zika virus in residents living in or having recently traveled to Miami, and the start of the new school year is heightening the levels of concern over the virus' spread for some in the area.

Ground Zero

Florida Memorial University President Roslyn Clark Artis has been fielding a lot of calls in the days leading up to student move-in day. Based in Miami Gardens, her institution has been at the center of a frantic effort between city and state health department officials to minimize mosquito exposure in the area that is the nation's only known locale for original Zika infection by way of insect bite. 

"The goal was to educate people about the realistic information, and to take the fear out of the conversation," Artis says.  "As we’ve gotten closer, parents have called to inquire about what we are doing, and if their children would be safe on campus."

Weeks ago, FMU officials began posting information about the virus on its website and taking and steps to prevent exposure. Artis says the university's campus healthcare providers and city officials have provided students with literature, mosquito repellent and other personal items for individual protection, and were among the first in the state to contact health department officials about mosquito fogging and standing water treatment on campus. 

Artis, along with a campus-wide committee, worked to convince Miami health officials to change the routes of their treatment trucks, citing concerns about potential enrollment decreases due to fear of the virus, particularly from out-of-state students. 

"For people who are not from South Florida, with parents who remember H1N1, it's a legitimate concern," says Artis. "We have not focused on costs, our healthcare providers have donated repellent and other supplies to our campus. Miami-Dade county recognized that we were fast approaching move-in week, and they diverted their trucks to come to our campus."

Beyond Miami

Two University of Florida students were among the state’s earliest identified patients carrying the Zika virus, a diagnosis that created immediate action from the university’s Division of Environmental Health and Safety.

Division Director Bill Properzio says the university began working closely with the state’s health department, even as early as February, to publish information about the virus when reports of outbreak first occurred in Asia and Caribbean nations.

More than 14% of Florida’s total public institutional enrollment claims residency in Dade County, and with increased student home residence and summer travel from South American and Caribbean countries, Properzio says that mosquito control has been the primary strategy to limit opportunities for on-campus exposure — a big task for a 2,000 acre main campus with 26 ponds and bodies standing water.

“We went around to living areas to drain water from places with larvicide, we removed  containers, Coke bottles, and all little areas to simply get rid of and cut off the breeding cycle,” says Properzio. He says that costs and personnel management for treating the campus would not create strain on his typical budget, and estimates that rounds of mosquito elimination would take about three months and cost less than $3,000.

But the clear objectives, he says, are making sure that students are aware of of the risks and the campus is flexible enough to adapt to any changes with the spread of the virus.

“Even though there was no source of active virus or mosquito transmission in the spring, we knew that because of the way the virus is transmitted, we needed to think about how to raise awareness,” he says. “So we did what we do all of the time; preach safe sex and precautionary things to help promote precaution as part of the general life of students. Now that the health department is reporting 21 cases of infection, this changes the dynamic, but we’ll adjust.”

College Research Leading the Fight

Florida Gulf Coast University Professors Sharon Isern and Scott Michael are virologists in the school’s department of biological sciences, with more than a decade of specialty in infectious diseases. The husband-and-wife team has received more than $3.5 million to conduct research on the dengue virus, a common disease carried by most mosquitoes which makes Zika more potent in its infection capacity.

Last year, the duo patented a dengue vaccine currently in its testing phase. Michael says even the best efforts to stunt the spread of the disease aren’t enough to account for human behaviors which may create greater exposure.

“We don’t know enough about Zika to come up with a great plan,” he says. “What we’re relying on is mosquito control, but that’s our only option. But the virus is also transmitted sexually, so are students going to stop having sex? Even the CDC and Florida State Department of Health are changing their stories on how to think about it as research gets done.”

As Florida officials work to reduce mosquito populations throughout Miami and surrounding counties, federal officials continue to spar over funding to contain the outbreak. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services authorized a funding reallocation of $81 million to fund continuing research and vaccine development, but estimates suggest that more than $1.5 billion will be needed to manage a total number of infections exceeding 1,800 patients nationwide, with the potential for massive spreading.

“I’m going to be extremely disappointed if they wait to take action until American babies are infected,” says Michael.

Filed Under: Higher Ed
Top image credit: Kate Haskell/Wikipedia