Close to a Zika Vaccine?

You’ve probably heard by now that researchers are hard at work developing a vaccine against the Zika virus.

Zika isn’t a problem for most healthy adults (symptoms often resemble a mild flu and can include joint pain, red eyes, pain behind the eyes, headache and a rash), but it’s dangerous for pregnant women and their babies and can cause birth defects such as microcephaly (when a baby is born with an underdeveloped brain and small head). It’s also been linked to neurological problems, eye problems and hearing loss in babies whose moms are infected during pregnancy, and some research suggests it may trigger seizures in babies.

Meanwhile, experts at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and other organizations are making progress on the vaccine, but we won’t be seeing it on the market just yet. Here’s what you should know — and how to protect yourself from the virus during pregnancy.

How long does it take to develop a vaccine?

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, explains that testing a vaccine is a long and complex process. The vaccine must be tested in animals and humans and evaluated for many factors. It is safe? What’s the dosage? How frequently should it be administered? What are the side effects? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered. Depending on the virus in question, it can take years, or even decades, to develop an effective vaccine.

“[Developing a vaccine] is a robust process,” Dr. Adalja says. “It is not a quick process.” He adds that development for the Zika vaccine is “moving very fast relative to vaccine years, but not Hollywood fast.”

In other words, there is no “magic” formula and even once a solution is found, it will be hard-won. Ebola is a good example of this. The fact that a viable solution was found amidst the 2014 epidemic was merely a coincidence. Dr. Adalja points out that the vaccine was years in the making.

“The Ebola vaccine was a decade-long process,” he says. “It was already in very advanced development by the 2014 outbreak.”

How does this affect the Zika virus vaccine?

Zika belongs to what’s called the flavivirus family (Dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and West Nile virus are all examples of flaviviruses). Experts have been fighting this family of viruses for years, and there are vaccines for some of them, including yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis. Duane Gubler, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the Duke-National University of Singapore told the Atlantic in a 2016 article that success with other flavivirus vaccines is reason to be optimistic about a Zika vaccine. “Some of [the flavivirus vaccines] have been very successful,” he said. “We have a head start.”

Current iterations of the Zika vaccine show promise. Researchers wrote in the September 2016 issue of the journal Science that their successful results on monkeys suggest Zika might be relatively easy to vaccinate against compared to other viruses. And there’s a variety of types now in development or various stages of clinical trials.

In December 2017, The Lancet reported that initial results from three phase 1 clinical trials concluded that a Zika purified inactivated virus (ZPIV) vaccine induced an immune response in human participants. Additionally, a press release from EurekAlert said that the vaccine was “well-tolerated” in the participants. So while we’re not there yet, researchers are definitely making progress.

What does this mean for you?

Regardless of how close humankind is to developing a Zika vaccine, Dr. Adalja stresses that prevention is still key — this advice is especially important for moms-to-be, since, as mentioned above, Zika can cause birth defects. 

This isn’t to say, however, that if you are infected with Zika during your pregnancy, your baby will definitely experience any health problems. A CDC study published in April 2017 examined 250 pregnant women with confirmed Zika diagnoses found that 10 percent reported birth defects in their babies. That number went up to 15 percent among women who had been diagnosed with Zika in the first trimester. Again, this doesn’t mean that your baby will automatically be born with or develop any birth defects or health problems. It does mean that babies whose moms are infected with Zika during pregnancy have an increased risk of birth defects.

Protecting yourself from Zika during pregnancy

Dr. David Schwartz, a fellow of the College of American Pathologists, believes in the power of prevention, as well. Like many women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, you probably have all sorts of questions about Zika: Should you travel to high-risk Zika areas six months before you plan to get pregnant? Should you travel to high-risk Zika areas in your first trimester? What about your second or third trimester?

“I don’t really have an all-encompassing answer to those questions because it is an individual situation, an informed counseling situation,” says Schwartz. “It depends on how important it is for someone to be somewhere and where they are in their reproductive life.” He adds that there are “different solutions for different people.” He and Dr. Adalja both recommend that if you have any questions at all about Zika, you should talk to your doctor.

There are a few concrete steps you can take to protect yourself from the virus during pregnancy. First, be aware of the symptoms, which can include: 

  • headache
  • red eyes
  • joint pain
  • pain behind your eyes
  • rash 

And you can protect yourself from mosquitoes by:

  • Applying mosquito repellent every day whenever you go outside.
  • Wearing long sleeves, pants and socks that are permethrin-treated. You can buy them with permethrin or treat them yourself.
  • Staying inside during peak mosquito hours (between sunrise and sunset) as much as possible. Aedes mosquitoes, which carry the virus, are still present at night (though they’re less active) so still wear mosquito repellent if you go out after dark.
  • Sleeping in screened-in rooms or rooms with closed windows and air-conditioning.
  • Staying on top of CDC travel alerts and talk to your doctor before visiting areas with Zika.

Zika can be sexually transmitted, so if you or your partner have traveled to a Zika-affected area recently, the CDC recommends that you either abstain from sex or use a barrier method (such as condoms or dental dams) throughout the entirety of your pregnancy. 

Should You Get Tested for Zika?

Not necessarily! If you are:

  • pregnant
  • exhibit Zika symptoms
  • and have recently been exposed to the virus (for example, you vacationed in an area with a Zika outbreak, or you’ve unprotected sex with someone who did)

YES: The CDC recommends you get tested as soon as possible. Your doctor can confirm a diagnosis with a blood or urine test (researchers are also working on a faster, easier Zika test too).

If you are:

  • pregnant
  • not experiencing any Zika symptoms
  • and you do have regular, ongoing exposure to the virus (for example, you travel to a Zika-impacted area once a month for work)

YES: The CDC recommends you get tested at least three times throughout your pregnancy.

If you are: 

  • pregnant
  • have potentially been exposed to Zika but do not have regular, on-going exposure (for example, you vacationed recently in an area with Zika, but you don’t routinely visit that area for work or family)
  • and do not show any Zika symptoms

NO: The CDC recommends that you do not get tested. This is to cut down on the number of false positives, though the first step you should take if you are worried about Zika or think you may have been exposed to it is to talk to your doctor (and the CDC also reports that in these cases, doctors should talk to their patients and consider whether testing would be appropriate, depending on the mom’s preference, her individual risk and other factors).

What If You’re Not Pregnant?

If you’re thinking about getting pregnant, and either you or your partner have traveled to a Zika-affected area, the CDC recommends either using condoms or waiting either two months (if you’ve possibly been exposed to Zika) or six months (if your male partner has possibly been exposed to Zika) before trying to conceive.

What if you’re not pregnant, but both of you have traveled to a Zika-active area? In that case, the CDC advises that you use condoms or abstain from sex entirely for at least six months, even if neither of you have any symptoms.

As always, talk to your practitioner — he or she will be able to answer any specific questions you have. 

The Bottom Line

Even once a Zika vaccine hits the market, Dr. Adalja stresses that you should consult your doctor about your Zika concerns. “A vaccine won’t make a problem go away,” says Adalja. Staying informed, being in contact with your doctor and focusing on mosquito bite prevention are the most effective weapons against Zika.

This story was originally published on May 17, 2017, and has been updated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.