UI receives $1 million Zika grant from CDC


A UI research team will study the Zika virus and microcephaly through a five-year project.

By Addison Martin

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Although the Zika virus is not yet a threat to the Midwestern states, the University of Iowa has been granted money to help rapidly identify microcephaly in fetuses, one of the major dangers that the virus carries.

Epidemiology Professor Paul Romitti and pediatrics Professor Daniel Bonthius will spearhead the five-year project with the $1 million grant, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The grant is to conduct public-health surveillance for microcephaly and other conditions that may be related to maternal Zika virus infection during pregnancy,” Romitti said. “Several states received a grant based on a formula funding scheme developed by CDC to be responsive to the Zika virus threat.”

Public Health College Dean Sue Curry said she is proud that this important research will be done through her school.

“Dr. Romitti has a long-standing stellar record,” she said. “We’ve always made a commitment in Iowa to use the resources that we have to better the health of the people of Iowa as well as nationally and internationally.”

The grant is a tandem effort between the Public Health College and the Carver College of Medicine, which was one of the reasons that made Iowa stand out against other competitors for the grant, Curry said.

“I would say the quality of the data that we have that were collected in Iowa … the quality of the other investigators involved … those are all some of the secret sauce that would make Iowa a very compelling place to participate in this study,” she said.

Although Iowa is perceived to be one of the least likely places where the Zika virus could be a problem, because of the species of mosquito that live here, the co-collaborator of the project disagrees.

“Things can change very rapidly especially with regards to mosquito population and viruses that a species of mosquito,” Bonthius said. “A species that did not carry Zika could begin to carry that virus very effectively; then the host range of the disease could change a lot.”

He said the reason this virus has the potential for adaptability that comes with a host species such as mosquitoes.

“Whenever you have species like mosquitoes that breed very rapidly and in high numbers, and you have a virus that can mutate very rapidly, [spreading of Zika in Iowa] very much can happen,” he said.

Bonthius said his role as a pediatrics physician will be to study cases of microcephaly in infants, one of the main effects of the virus. He will study cases of infants born in Iowa and will hope to identify what causes this congenital abnormality.

“We hope that the Zika virus never reaches Iowa, but it is far from clear that that’s the case,” he said.

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