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UND professor, students to study Zika virus transmission

Jeff Vaughan said he thinks there might be a connection between the way West Nile and Zika viruses are transmitted, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) has given him $50,000 to find out.

Vaughan, a professor and interim chairman of UND's biology department, plans to study whether a certain kind of parasite called mansonelliasis expedites the rate at which mosquitoes contract Zika and then transmit it to humans.

With a National Institutes of Health grant, Vaughan already has been studying a similar phenomenon with birds and West Nile, so he thinks it might apply to Zika.

"It's not something that I already have been thinking about," he said.

Zika made headlines in February when the World Health Organization declared the virus an international public health emergency. It can be transferred from pregnant women to children in the womb, causing microcephaly, a condition in which an infant is born with an abnormally small head, which can affect brain development.

The disease can be spread by mosquitoes or sexually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no vaccine to prevent contracting Zika, nor medicine to cure it.

"Originally, it's a mosquito-born virus of African monkeys that got into people and then rapidly spread throughout the world, probably through airplane travel," Vaughan said.

Vaughan saw the NSF grant information and applied for it in April through the Rapid Response Research program. His pilot project will last about 10 months and involves working with two undergraduate students to study whether mosquitoes contract Zika quicker or more frequently from disease-ridden blood with the parasitic worms.

"The hope is that it doesn't work, but if it does work, that could lead to more extensive studies," he said.

Vaughan said many people in the world contract the mansonelliasis worms through insect bites and live full lives, but it's concentrated in extremely tropical places like Latin America.

"I'm just asking a simple question: Do these worms enhance the transmission of Zika," he said. "That's all I hope to understand."

The first confirmed Zika case in North Dakota was reported in April, when a woman who had traveled to Puerto Rico while pregnant tested positive. In January, Minnesota's first Zika case was confirmed with a woman who had traveled to Honduras.

Vice President for Research and Economic Development Grant McGimpsey said the grant is a great recognition of the work being done at UND.

"There is biomedical community at the university that has grown over the years and it demonstrates that the research we're doing is important not only to the world but to North Dakota as well," he said.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.