Vaccines wanted: researchers target Zika virus

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

January 28th, 2016

Gary Finnegan

Thousands of babies in Brazil have been born with birth defects linked to an outbreak of Zika virus, prompting calls for accelerated vaccine development. Meanwhile, in Europe, another virus continues to pose a serious threat to babies if pregnant women are infected.

Close to 4,000 babies in Brazil have been born with cases of microcephaly (abnormally small head size), according to the World Health Organisation. In the state of Pernambuco, one of the worst-hit areas, that translates as between 1% and 2% of all births.

Experts are still unsure if and how the virus may be causing these severe birth defects. Other diseases, such as dengue fever, are transmitted by the same mosquito but cannot be passed from mother to baby in the womb.

Still, the increase in the number of cases of Zika and the surge in birth defects is cause for concern, with the WHO predicting that the disease would continue to spread across the Americas – including to the US.

In Brazil alone the number potentially affected could be in the tens of thousands. There are also concerns about the broad social impact: a sudden dip in birth rate, rising numbers of illegal abortions, and parents abandoning disabled babies.

US President Barack Obama has called for more research into vaccines, treatments and better diagnostic tests.

There are currently no treatments for Zika fever which is usually a mild illness – apart from its devastating impact on unborn babies.

Race against time

The sudden scramble for a vaccine against Zika virus is somewhat reminiscent of how the Ebola outbreak was a catalyst for vaccine research against that disease.

Dengue fever may be attracting fewer headlines at present but an increase in cases of that disease sparked strong interest in vaccine development some years ago. Brazil was one of the first countries to approve the new dengue fever vaccine, recognising the seriousness of the disease which is endemic in Latin America as well as much of Asia and Africa.

Now attention has turned to Zika fever but experts say it could take anything from three to 10 years before a vaccine becomes available. As was the case when concern rose about Ebola, vaccine developers are rampuing up efforts to develop a vaccine.

Read: Ebola outbreak highlights need for vaccine and Where are the Ebola vaccines?

The fear now is that Zika virus could become a serious problem in those countries where dengue is a major public health challenge. Around half the world’s population live in areas which are high-risk for dengue.

Read: Vaccine research: which disease are the top priority?

Europe is not considered a high-risk area for mosquito-borne illnesses (notwithstanding the 2012 outbreak of dengue fever on the Portuguese island of Madeira).

But the Zika outbreak threatens to damage millions of lives and, as the birth defects associated with Zika are linked to infection in the early stages of pregnancy, it may even make travel less appealing to younger people: women could be infected before they are even aware that they are pregnant.

However, there is a disease present in Europe which causes severe birth defects if pregnant women are infected. It’s called rubella.

Up to 85% of babies born to mothers who had rubella shortly before or in early pregnancy may develop health problems known as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).

Thankfully, there is a vaccine against rubella – the MMR.

Make sure you are up to date: speak to your doctor to ensure you are protected before becoming pregnant.

Read: Rubella during pregnancy: a major risk for babies


  1. Achsel


    February 18th, 2016

    The birth defects are suspected to be from a larvicide NOT the Zika virus. The Zika virus has been around for more than 70 years and has NEVER caused Microcephaly and has never been documented to cause it. Current outbreaks in Columbia and elsewhere are proving that as well. Brazil has a few major issues far removed from the Zika virus that could explain the huge numbers of affected babies. First putting a larvicide in their water supplies to ward off the same mosquitoes that carry Dengue fever, the Brazilian government is now considering banning this larvicide as it seems to be a suspect. Also 10 months before the outbreak of Microcephaly they started giving pregnant women a DTP shot as they had run out of the DTaP normally used. No one is looking at that. And WHO had released in the affected areas, genetically modified mosquitoes to combat Dengue Fever and not all the mosquitoes died as expected.
    However it is ironic that they are already testing a Zika vaccine in mice a scant 30 days after the incorrect and overblown blaming of the virus on cases of Microcephaly. As you are doing here as well. It seems as if the whole scenario was pre-planned!

  2. Achsel


    February 18th, 2016

    Oh and not to forget that in Brazil they actually give pregnant women the MMR vaccine. All live viruses, an absolute NO-NO in the U.S. or at least for now it still is. And guess what is documented to cause Microcephaly, yep measles and rubella! Go figure!

    • Gary Finnegan

      Gary Finnegan

      February 19th, 2016

      I don’t know about Brazil or the US but in Europe MMR is not recommended for pregnant women. In contrast, flu and pertussis vaccines are recommended during pregnancy.

  3. Gary Finnegan

    Gary Finnegan

    February 19th, 2016

    I should add that being up to date with rubella vaccination (usually via the MMR) is important prior to becoming pregnant. As many pregnancies are not planned, it’s advisable for all women of child-bearing age to be up to date.