The Zika virus represents the greatest threat to newborns since polio, the dean of the University of South Florida's medical school is warning.
Charles Lockwood, an internationally renowned obstetrician who has delivered 5,000 babies, said new research shows Zika remains a risk well into the third trimester when the threat to child development from other infections like rubella is past.
Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect where babies are born with smaller than normal heads. Even when skulls are fully developed, the virus may hinder brain growth and lead to autism, mental retardation, seizures, hearing loss and vision problems, he said.
"Babies can appear completely normal and microcephaly may not be discernible until early infancy," he said. "That is terribly frightening to the obstetrician. It makes it very difficult to calculate the effect of fetal damage."
Lockwood spoke Friday at a USF forum on Zika, where he joined other leading USF researchers and U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor and David Jolly in calling for Congress to provide funding to combat Zika.
Polio was widespread in the United States and caused paralysis in about 1 in 200 cases in the early 1950s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The licensing of a vaccine in the early 1960s reduced cases of paralysis from an average of 20,000 per year to just 61 by 1965.
Nationwide, there have been about 2,250 confirmed Zika infections, the vast majority because of travel to countries where the virus is common.
But the virus has several traits that lead scientists to fear outbreaks similar to ones in South and Central American countries where there are more than 400,000 cases, according to humanitarian group Direct Relief.
Zika is the first virus known to be spread by mosquitoes and to be sexually transmitted. It has also been found to remain present in semen for up to 93 days after the start of an infection.
Its risk to fetuses is magnified because pregnant women are more prone to attract mosquitoes as they expel more carbon dioxide.
Another concern: About 80 percent of infected people exhibit no symptoms, said Douglas Holt, director of the Division of Infectious Disease and International Medicine at USF's Morsani College of Medicine.
That means they will go about their normal lives.
"This is a virus that is as sneaky as a wolf in sheep's clothing; it comes in and most people don't know they have it," he said. "We're in for a tough fight."
Still, Holt believes that mosquito control efforts and public education can contain the virus to small outbreaks rather than widespread transmission seen in South America.
USF researchers from its medical school, infectious disease division and public health college are already sharing research on Zika, The medical school is also working with researchers from the Gorgas Memorial Institute in Panama where the World Health Organization reports there have been more than 800 suspected cases. A two-year study of the children of infected woman is planned.
But there is frustration that it takes up to nine months for the National Institutes of Health to award grants needed for additional research projects.
A state of the art mosquito lab that could be used to research how to stem Zika transmission to humans is instead focused on malaria.
Lockwood is calling on the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes to create a rapid response team to pare the grant approval process to just nine weeks.
"We must have funding; this is a national emergency," Lockwood said.
The school wants to use drones and other remote surveillance methods to identify breeding habitats of the mosquito that transmits Zika. It also wants to study whether teaching people to remove standing water reduces the mosquito population.
Research is also urgently needed on Zika prevention, better detection and development of a vaccine, Lockwood said.
"The most immediate concern is to develop a vaccine as soon as possible," he said. "No matter what we do to identify infection, to some extent it's already too late."
Castor and Jolly both said federal lawmakers need to act quickly. Congress went into its seven-week summer recess without agreeing to the White House's request for $1.9 billion to fight Zika.
As a stopgap measure, the White House redirected about $600 million from other public health priorities, including research into cancer.
"The urgency is that eventually that money will expire pretty soon," Jolly said. "That's why Congress needs to get back to Washington and pass a Zika package."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.