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The Path of a Pathogen

The Past, Present, and Future of Zika


Janet A. De Souza-Hart
School of Arts & Sciences
MCPHS University


Scientists and healthcare professionals initially exhibited little concern over the Zika virus even after evidence of human infection was first identified in 1952; Zika appeared to be both rare and unassociated with morbidity or mortality. Around 2015 all of this changed as journalists, scientists, public health officials, and laypeople scrambled to learn about its varied modes of transmission and devastating consequences (e.g., birth defects and autoimmune disorders). Although research continues to rapidly evolve, this case study directs students to reliable scientific sources (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization) that will likely continue to provide the most current information in order to explore questions such as: Where did the virus come from? How does it spread? What can we do to prevent it? Students will also consider the public health challenges and possible solutions associated with emerging infectious diseases. The case was originally written for an upper-level biology or public health course in which students already have some basic background knowledge regarding viruses, vaccines, and infectious disease.

  • Describe the epidemiology of the Zika virus.
  • Identify factors (social, technological, ecological, etc.) that facilitate the spread of mosquito-borne infections.
  • Describe genetic changes that viruses undergo and analyze how those changes affect viral evolution/adaptation within a host.
  • Contrast the diverse transmission patterns and prevention strategies for Zika.
  • Describe signs, symptoms, and treatment strategies for typical Zika infections as well as serious complications.
  • Analyze the various public health strategies used for the Zika pandemic using data from reliable scientific literature.
  • Evaluate different interventions to reduce the impact and spread of Zika infection, depending on resources and healthcare infrastructure of a region.
Keywords: Zika virus; public health; mosquito; vector-borne; microcephaly; Guillain-Barré; vaccine; transmission
Topical Area: Policy issues, Science and the media
Educational Level: Undergraduate upper division, Graduate
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Directed, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Epidemiology   Medicine (General)   Public Health  
Date Posted: 3/16/2018
Date Modified:
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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Supplemental Materials

The podcasts below provide additional information still relevant to this rapidly changing field as of March, 2018, when this case study was originally published.

  Americas Brace for Zika Spread
This podcast with infectious disease specialist Michael Osterolm (Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy) explains what was known about Zika in January of 2016, and what might be expected as the outbreak continued to unfold. Podcast created by Science Friday. Running time: 11:46 min. Date: January 29, 2016.
  Zika Virus Transmission Still Mysterious
This podcast with microbiologist Carolyn Coyne discusses the connection between Zika virus and microcephaly and transmission from mother to child. Podcast created by Science Friday. Running time: 9:57 min. Date: April 15, 2016.
  Where Do We Stand in the Fight Against Zika?
This podcast with Anthony Fauci (Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) covers a Zika vaccine candidate and a study suggesting that the virus may have long-term impacts on healthy adult mouse brains. Podcast created by Science Friday. Running time: 11:47 min. Date: August 26, 2016.

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