As Zika virus spreads, WCU mosquito expert advises state

Brian Byrd (left) and a student examine pinned mosquito specimens in the laboratory.

Brian Byrd (left) and a student examine pinned mosquito specimens in the laboratory.

During the first week of February, the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus a public health emergency, and three days later the first instance of it being transmitted sexually during the current outbreak was confirmed in Texas.

But, a few days before that, Brian Byrd was providing expert advice for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Communicable Disease Branch in the Division of Public Health.

Byrd, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Western Carolina University and supervisor of the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility at WCU’s School of Health Sciences, was queried for information by officials at the health department about the current outbreak and its appearance in the U.S. in travelers returning from South America and nations near the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

“The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne illness that has been known for a long time,” Byrd said. “It’s a fairly self-limiting virus, but there’s a possible connection with a condition called microcephaly that could cause more of a health burden. That’s the concern.”

Microcephaly, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is a brain- and head-growth condition that results in birth defects, and researchers have been studying a correlation between the condition and incidence of the virus among mothers of the babies affected, especially in Brazil.

“As I understand it, they haven’t narrowed down the mechanism of the microcephaly there conclusively, but there is mounting evidence that infection with Zika virus during pregnancy is a major risk factor,” Byrd said. “Microcephaly is worrisome. WHO is right to call it a public health emergency.”

The risk of contracting the virus in North Carolina, especially in this season of the year, is low, Byrd said. “It’s primarily transmitted by the same species of mosquito – Aedes aegypti – that carries the yellow fever virus. This mosquito is not commonly found in the wild in our state. In fact, the last recorded record of it in North Carolina was over 10 years ago,” he said.

“However, the potential for local transmission is not zero in North Carolina. There is another mosquito that can transmit the virus – Aedes albopictus – and although there is evidence to suggest this mosquito may not pose as great a risk in our state, that species is found in all 100 counties,” Byrd said.

Legislative budget cuts in 2011 led to the closure of the N.C. Public Health Pest Management Section of the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and brought the need for guidance from WCU’s facility into even greater demand. Byrd and other colleagues have been responding to the need through outreach efforts as well as consultation. “I do community and professional workshops where attendees can learn about mosquito biology, disease risk and control strategies,” Byrd said. “And I’m available to advise both local and state-level agencies.”

Byrd’s research has included regional health concerns like the prevalence of mosquito-borne La Crosse encephalitis in North Carolina and the discovery of the mosquito species Aedes pertinax in the U.S. for the first time.

For more information about his research, contact Byrd at (828) 227-2607 or at bdbyrd@wcu.edu.