The race for a Zika vaccineSaturday, May 21, 2016
BY THE MINISTRY OF HEALTH
The most recent talks on the Zika virus have been the development of a vaccine. As early as this year, the first human trials of a Zika vaccine could begin. However, public health officials have warned that it will take until at least next year, and possibly much longer, to determine whether a vaccine works.
The vaccine being developed at the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center, in Bethesda, just outside Washington DC in the United States, is one of two of the most advanced Zika vaccines in development. The other is being developed by Bharat Biotech, an Indian company based in Hyderabad. If successful, the creation of a Zika vaccine would be a positive step in reducing this debilitating disease.
Vaccines have been around for many years and have proven to be life-saving interventions for many preventable illnesses. A vaccine improves immunity to a particular disease. Vaccines typically contain an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism, and are often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe, its toxins, or one of its surface proteins.
The agent stimulates the body’s immune system to recognise the agent as foreign, destroy it, and "remember" it, so that the immune system can more easily recognise and destroy any of these microorganisms that it later encounters. The Zika vaccine in development uses synthesised genetic information from the virus, rather than live virus, to trigger an immune response in the body.
The challenge is that we are still learning more about the Zika virus as research unfolds. Vaccine development is a slow and deliberate process in large part because it needs to keep test subjects, and ultimately those who will get the vaccine, safe. Also vaccines must meet many more Government benchmarks before drug makers bring them to market. It takes several years of lab research for scientists to figure out what the antigen is to stop a disease. The development of a Zika vaccine will have to take into consideration that it will be used to protect pregnant women or women of child-bearing age, and as such must meet an extremely high standard of safety.
Zika is a disease with severe public health implications. Zika has been linked to fetal malformations in the form or microcephaly and neurological disorders like Guillain-BarrÃ© syndrome. Zika symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis (red eyes) without the pus. Once you begin to experience these symptoms you are advised to see your health care provider as soon as possible.
Until we are closer to a vaccine, the best way to keep safe is to actively search for and destroy mosquito-breeding sites in your surroundings, use repellents with DEET, use bed nets in conjunction with mesh on doors and window screens, and wear light-coloured clothing.
For more information on the Zika virus, mosquito- breeding sites and other related material, visit the Ministry of Health’s website at www.moh.gov.jm
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