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Agencies, Universities Study Ways To Keep Zika Out Of Kansas

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AFPMB James L. Occi/Flickr Creative Commons
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An Aedes mosquito feeding.

Five cases of Zika virus have been reported in Kansas, all of which originated outside of the United States. Various state agencies and university laboratories are looking for ways to keep that number at a minimum.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has started a statewide surveillance program to monitor mosquitoes, which is something the organization does every year. This year, though, because of the increased concern over Zika, researchers with the Kansas Biological Survey at KU will be looking closely for the Aedes mosquito, a species known to carry the virus.

Cassie Sparks, public information officer for the KDHE, says the surveillance program began a month ago in southeast Kansas and will fan out through the rest of state.

“The goal of that surveillance is to get a better idea of where the Aedes mosquitos are located in the state and the density of those mosquitos throughout Kansas,” Sparks says.

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Credit Kansas Department of Health and Environment
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The surveillance program involves trapping and counting the different species of mosquitos in the state. The numbers are then reported back to the KDHE.

A total of 820 cases of Zika have been reported in the U.S.; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, none of those has originated in the United States. That includes all five Kansas cases.

The Zika virus can be carried in two types of Aedes mosquito. It often doesn't include severe symptoms and rarely leads to death. The virus been linked to some severe birth defects such as microcephaly, where an infant's head doesn't develop to full size.

"Because of our expertise and our capabilities, we were contacted by collaborators to work with them on research," says Stephen Higgs, director of the Kansas Biosecurity Research Institute which is conducting separate research. "So we're growing up the virus and providing it to collaborators."

In addition to growing the virus, Higgs said he and his students are infecting mosquitoes with the virus to gain information, such as the length of the dissemination period for the insects.

Though Zika was discovered in 1947, Higgs said, there had been fewer than 50 cases of it until 2007.

"It was a very poorly studied virus and now it's in completely new areas of the world and we just don't have the answers to explain why it's causing these very unusual symptoms," he said. "No other mosquito-transmitted virus has been connected with these serious birth defects before. It's completely new and obviously quite devastating."

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Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.