Infectious Disease Class Zeroes in on Zika
When West Africa experienced an Ebola outbreak in 2014, Dr. Kris Obom’s students learned about the virus and its pathogenesis. Now with the Zika virus considered a public health emergency by the World Health Organization, Obom’s students are studying this latest threat in depth.
“We will be following this through the semester,” Obom said. “Every day there’s something new.”
Obom, director of Advanced Academic Programs’ Center for Biotechnology Education and program director for the Master of Science in Biotechnology program, teaches Emerging Infectious Diseases. The course is offered online and onsite at the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus. Pat Cummings, also program director for the Master of Science in Biotechnology, is teaching a section of the course as well.
“We talked about the basic biology of the virus, the pathogenesis, the transmission, the mosquito vector itself, current treatments and prevention,” Obom said.
She has asked her students to consider what proof they would need that an association exists between Zika virus and microcephaly. She also has them contemplate the reasons why this disease has emerged.
The Zika virus, Obom explained, is spread through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. (Also, Dallas County Health and Humans Services has received confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a patient was infected with the virus after having sexual contact with an ill individual who returned from Venezuela.)
The virus was first identified in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947 by scientists who were studying Yellow Fever in monkeys. Little was heard about the virus in the past several decades, until an outbreak was reported in 2007 in Micronesia. Then in 2015, the virus was reported in Brazil.
Obom said the vast majority of people infected with Zika virus are asymptomatic. Some have mild symptoms, such as fever, aches and conjunctivitis. The alarm is regarding those who develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder that attacks the body’s nerve cells; and regarding pregnant woman whose babies are born with microcephaly, a neurological condition that is characterized by small head size and can impact all areas of a child’s development. (The CCD is studying whether the Zika virus is causing these conditions.)
“This reminds us mild viruses like this can have devastating effects in certain populations,” Obom said.
In the Emerging Infectious Diseases course, part of the biotechnology master’s program, Obom addresses maladies that have reappeared in altered genetic forms, such as influenza virus, West Nile virus and the lethal hemorrhagic fever caused by the Ebola virus. Also discussed is the threat of recombinant and ancient infectious agents such as Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, which can be used in biological warfare weapons.
Students in her class are good at connecting virus outbreaks to current events topics. They have had class discussions about impacts of climate change on mosquito populations and about how officials will handle the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
“The world is no longer a global place. It is a village,” Obom said. “People can get around the world within 24 hours, and they can bring their diseases with them.”