Pediatrician Addresses Zika Concerns at C2ST ‘Speakeasy’

By: Mariah Quintanilla

The dimly-lit back room of Pint, a cozy pub in Wicker Park, was abuzz with talk of the Zika virus Wednesday night. The ‘speakeasy’ event, hosted by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, or C2ST, is part of a monthly series of science-themed talks given by professionals in their fields of research.

This month, “The Summer of Zika” was led by Dr. Daniel Johnson, an associate professor of pediatrics at The University of Chicago Medicine. After forfeiting his slideshow due to technical troubles, Johnson started off the conversation with a light-hearted question. “Who here has not heard of Zika?” he asked.

No one raised a hand.

Zika has been on the public’s radar ever since U.S. and International health officials made correlations between the virus and the high number of babies in Brazil born with microcephaly, a birth defect characterized by abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. Having swept through parts of South America, the Pacific Islands, the Carribean and parts of Africa this winter, Zika now threatens the southern U.S. states because of hotter summer weather exacerbated by climate change.

Johnson began by defining Zika, an RNA virus in the family Flaviviridae. “Anyone know any flaviviruses?” asked Johnson.

“Dengue! West Nile! Chikungunya!” people shouted. Clearly, those people present had already done some research on the virus.

Aviva Theen, a science teacher at Morgan Park High School in Chicago, said she was just there to listen and admitted to having a good understanding of the virus already. Theen is moving to Costa Rica soon, but said she is not worried about catching Zika where she is going because it was at a high enough elevation that Aedes aegypti, the main vector of Zika, would not be a threat.

People sipped beer and ate burgers while Johnson detailed current theories of how the unique flavivirus is able to traverse the placental membrane in a mother’s womb. His language was technical, but the crowd seemed to keep pace.

“If you get Zika a year before you get pregnant, do you have to worry about it?” a woman shouted from the back of the room.

Johnson echoed advice from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Women who have contracted Zika, or even suspect they have, should wait at least eight weeks before attempting to get pregnant. Because Zika can be sexually transmitted and has been detected in men’s semen up to 62 days after the initial illness, men should wait at least that period of time before becoming sexually active.

 

Dr. Johnson at Zika talk
Photo by Teresa Manring: Dr. Daniel Johnson speaking about the Zika virus at C2ST event

Someone asked if Zika was bound to move into the U.S. with the expanding range of Aedes aegypti. Though the risk of contracting Zika is still very low in the U.S.—Chicago in particular because of the colder climate—it would still be wise to prepare for its arrival, warned Johnson.

To date, however, there have been zero cases of Zika in the U.S. due to local transmission. If you are planning on traveling to areas with Zika, Johnson recommended wearing mosquito repellent during the day because that’s when female Aedes mosquitos tend to bite.

Chris Eppig, the director of programming for C2ST, asked the last question. “Should I be concerned about going to the Olympics?” he asked Johnson. The crowd chuckled.

“Zika would not keep me from going to the Olympics,” said Johnson. “The only people I would say should not go to the Olympics are pregnant women,” he added.

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