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Should The U.S. Be Concerned About The Zika Virus?


The Zika virus is on its way to becoming a household word, and the World Health Organization says the virus is, quote, "spreading explosively in the Americas." For what that means to the U.S., we're joined by the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Good morning.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the WHO just predicted up to 4 million cases of Zika are coming to South and also North America this year. It seems like a scary number. How should Americans be preparing for the arrival of the virus?

FAUCI: Well, I think we have to be careful when we talk about wild spread throughout the Americas. There's no doubt that we will have, and we've already had, a number of cases that are imported cases - namely, cases of individuals who visit in South America or the Caribbean or live there, get infected, and then come to United States. And then you have a case that gets sick while they're in the United States because they were bitten by the mosquito in the south, mainly South America and the Caribbean. There will be plenty of those. We've seen that with other infections of the Caribbean and South America, such as dengue, particularly, and the new infection, chikungunya. So we know that will happen. The issue is, what about locally-transmitted cases? Will there be situations where someone comes, gets bitten by a mosquito down there, comes here, and then a mosquito bites them and starts to spread it locally in the United States? We would not be surprised that that would happen in small clusters because we've seen that with similar viruses, like dengue. But what happened with dengue, historically, is that those clusters tend to be able to well-controlled. We do not predict or expect that we will have an explosive, millions-of-people outbreak.

MONTAGNE: To whatever degree there is an outbreak, how serious is this disease?

FAUCI: As an infection, it's a relatively mild, inconsequential infection characterized by a rash, fever, pinkeye, joint aches and pains, with almost no mortality associated with it. The reason there's this attention now, and importantly so, is that we're seeing in South America, particularly in Brazil and to some extent the Caribbean, an association, both temporally and geographically, with the upsurge in the cases of Zika together with this complication in pregnancy of babies having what's called microcephaly, which is a developmental problem and a destructive problem of the brain of the babies which, when they're born, they have small heads and small craniums.

MONTAGNE: And you have said that human testing could begin on a vaccine this year. But vaccines for Ebola, for instance, were much further along in the testing process, and we still don't have an approved Ebola vaccine. Why the optimism about a Zika vaccine?

FAUCI: Well, I want to make it clear that we will be able to go into early phase one testing of a vaccine within the calendar year 2016. That is not to say that we will have a vaccine that would be available for widespread use following approval. That process certainly will take a few years, so when I said we'll go into testing this year, I mean the beginning of the phase one testing to determine if it's safe or if it induces an immune response. We won't have a vaccine that's widely available for at least a few years.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Anthony Fauci is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Thank you for joining us.

FAUCI: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.