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How Scientists Misread The Threat Of Zika Virus

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A health worker in Lima, Peru, fumigates against the mosquito that spreads Zika virus, dengue and chikungunya.

The world wasn't prepared for Zika to fly across continents in the span of a few months. In 2015, when the virus began rapidly spreading across the Americas, health workers were surprised, and researchers were caught flat-footed when it came time to provide information to protecting the public's health.

Scientists misjudged Zika virus as a minor and trivial ailment when it was discovered in 1947, says Dr. Ken Stuart, the founder and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Seattle. That oversight is one reason for the dearth of medical knowledge around the virus.

But it didn't have to be that way, he says. Stuart spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro on why the Zika outbreak has unfolded the way it did and how things could have gone better. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On why scientists didn't pay much attention to Zika for decades after it was identified

It was discovered in Uganda and was thought to be isolated and to occur infrequently. So there was essentially no research done. I think only one person in the U.S. was working on Zika virus.

We were unaware of the severity of the disease ... [and] were unaware this virus had the capability for getting distributed so rapidly.

On trying to get a handle on emerging infectious diseases

[We can] try to deploy resources consciously to develop fundamental understanding of groups of infectious agents and diseases they cause. Zika virus is a fairly small virus that has a single strand of RNA as its genome, fairly simple. And there are other related viruses [like Spondweni virus], so working on related viruses and how that virus affects the cells and individuals it infects when it causes disease will help with the next outbreak of a related organism.

On why that doesn't always happen

This really goes back to funding priorities. Much of the funding devoted to infectious disease today is in reaction to outbreaks. Therefore, we're not generally prepared to respond quickly.

In other cases there are diseases that are very rare but they have an advocacy group that generates research activities. In the case of diseases like Zika, which were isolated in remote areas of the world where that population had no resources or advocacy group, there was no push to do research.

On how we'll respond to outbreaks in the future

We're not stuck with what we've got. There are conversations between federal funding agencies and private organizations to try to prioritize the utilization of their resources, and I would say the NIH has been a leader in supporting the fundamental research that actually, probably positions us best to be prepared to respond to these disease outbreaks.

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