Brock University’s Zika research stalled by dry summer

This year’s dry summer was bad for grass and thus, anyone planning on having a bonfire in their yard. One side effect, that would normally be thought of as positive, has led to a difficult problem. The Niagara Region’s mosquito populations are down, which is good for the general public but bad for the people studying the Zika virus.

“Our trap catches for mosquitoes are so low this year, it is unprecedented for us,” said Professor Fiona Hunter in a press release. “Normally we’d be getting hundreds and hundreds of mosquitoes in traps. Now we are lucky if we get a dozen. It’s that bad.”

Aedes Albopictus Mosquito feeding on a human/James Gathany (CDC)

Professor Hunter is a medical entomologist at Brock University in the department of Biological Sciences. She runs the university’s “Fly Lab,” which includes a containment level two and containment level three lab in the Cairns building. The Fly Lab studies biting insects including mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, horse flies, and ceratopogonids, as well as ticks.

Mosquitoes breed in standing water. Normally, when a mosquito-borne illness is going around, residents are reminded to avoid leaving water around their homes. In the time of the West Nile Virus, people were asked to empty things like bird baths and kiddie pools, to make sure the pests did not have a place to grow. That has not been a problem this year. Researchers said they expected to be testing two strains of Zika sent to them by the Public Health Agency of Canada on thousands of mosquitoes, but have had to make do with what they have.

“It means that we may not get the full story this year,” Hunter said. Though the research is not progressing as fast as planned, the team is pressing on.

“We have been able to confirm that Aedes aegypti, [a breed of mosquito], can transmit the virus. We wanted to make sure we have a positive control. We’ve successfully infected and seen transmission,” she said. “We know that we can run these experiments.”

Part of the research conducted at Brock also includes the study of other types of mosquitoes including The Asian Tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, which is known to live much further north than Aedes aegypti.

Hunter and her team will keep attempting to collect mosquitoes in the region, as they are known to continue breeding into October. So far, the team has tested a half dozen species of mosquito that were caught locally, and none of them have been able to transmit the virus.

The Zika virus became a household name last year when it was linked to the spread of Guillian-Barré and microcephaly in Brazil, the host of this year’s Olympic and Paralympic games. Athletes and spectators alike took special precautions when traveling for the games to avoid contracting the virus which presents itself in the form of fever, joint and muscle pain, pink eye, and when contracted by a pregnant woman, can lead to developmental defects in the brain of the developing infant.  Zika can currently be found in at least 69 countries, according to the World Health Organization, and as of now there is no anti-viral treatment.


Zika Facts:
Carried and transmitted by mosquitoes, but can also be transmitted sexually
Symptoms appear three to 12 days after infection and include: fever, joint and muscle pain, skin rash, conjunctivitis (pink eye), and headache
Generally resolves in two to seven days and most people (75 to 80 per cent) display no symptoms at all
No anti-viral treatment at this time
The virus is linked to Guillian-Barré syndrome and microcephaly (incomplete brain development that leads to a smaller than normal head)

Tips for Women

Canada recommends not traveling if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, and avoiding pregnancy for at least two months after travel to make sure the virus is completely out of your system.

Tips for Men

The Zika virus can remain present in the semen of males with the virus for an extended period of time, and therefore men who may have come in contact are discouraged from having sexual contact with anyone for six months, using condoms if they choose to have sexual contact with anyone, and not to have sex with a woman who is, or could possibly be pregnant.

Travel Health Notice Levels from the Government of Canada

Level 1 – Practice Usual Precautions [Green]
“Travel health notices advise practicing usual travel health precautions. For example, notices at this level may remind travelers about routine vaccinations, highlight the importance of hand washing, or recommend protective measures to avoid mosquito bites.”

Level 2 – Practice Special Precautions [Yellow]
“Travel health notices recommend that travelers practice special health precautions, such as receiving additional vaccinations. A notice at this level would be issued if there is an outbreak in a limited geographic location, a newly identified disease in the region or a change in the existing pattern of disease.”

Level 3 – Avoid Non-Essential Travel [Red]
“Travel health notices include a warning to avoid non-essential travel in order to protect the health of Canadian travelers and the Canadian pSept6.Spec.Zika.2ublic. The notice outlines specific precautions to take when visiting the region and what to do if you become ill during or after travel. A notice at this level would be issued during a large-scale outbreak in a large geographic area, or if there is increased risk to the traveler and an increased risk of spreading disease to other groups including the Canadian public.”

Level 4 – Avoid All Travel [Red]
“Advises travelers to avoid all travel in order to protect the health of the Canadian public. A notice at this level would be issued if there is a high risk of spread of disease to the general public regardless of measures taken while traveling. Avoiding travel will limit the spread of the disease in Canada and internationally.”


Joanna Ward, Specialty News Editor 

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