What can Public Health Students Learn from the Zika Virus? | Aug 24, 2016

Since Brazil identified the spread of the Zika virus within its borders in 2015, the disease has extended into a number of countries in both South and Central America. Recent identification of local transmission in Miami-Dade County, FL brings a new urgency to the response in the continental United States. Puerto Rico has been experiencing high levels of Zika virus transmission for months.
As a potential or current public health student, there is much you can learn from the Zika virus and the response to the epidemic.

Zika and the public health professional

As Zika becomes a growing concern of the U.S. government, public health professionals are an important part of the country’s responsive strategy for addressing the virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined a number of goals for local, state and territorial entities, including:

  • Controlling and monitoring the spread of the virus.
  • Reducing sexually-transmitted cases through educating clinicians and the public of the risks.
  • Preventing transmission of the virus through blood transfusions.
  • Monitoring pregnant women and following up to track adverse outcomes in infants.
  • Educating travelers who are headed to areas infected with Zika.

In addition to community educational and preventive measures, in a press release from the White House, the president reported that there is promising work being done on a vaccine to inoculate people against Zika. Kacey Ernst, Ph.D., M.P.H., an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, confirmed that a vaccine could be important for limiting the spread of Zika, because other preventive measures can be difficult to carry out within large populations.

Ae. aegypti is notoriously difficult to control,” Ernst said. “Community-based strategies can work if you have people who are very strongly invested in making sure there’s no standing water and people are wearing repellent and keeping away from mosquitoes. These strategies can be helpful, but they only have limited success if they can’t get a high proportion of the population to buy in. And in places where there is abject poverty, it’s hard for people to buy screens for their windows and mosquito repellant.”

For those working in the public health field, these preventive measures are familiar steps taken to protect communities from a large number of diseases and health concerns.

A career in infectious disease

If you are a public health student or professional interested in studying Zika or other diseases spread by mosquitoes and other insects, Ernst recommended starting by learning all you can about entomology.

“I think when you’re working on something like a vector borne disease field it’s important to have at least a base knowledge of what you’ll be working with,” Ernst said. “Take an entomology class. Maybe a climatology class. Maybe you’re not an expert in all these areas, but you’ll actually know who to contact and what kind of information you might need from other partners and individuals.”

She also stressed the importance of getting out in the field and gaining hands on experience when possible.

“Getting out in the field is really important,” Ernst said. “Pretty much there are mosquitoes everywhere… you can do something in your own community to understand what kind of mosquitoes are here and you can work with what you have to understand what’s going on. There’s nothing better than getting your hands dirty and seeing what things look like on the ground.”

In the Master’s of Public Health online program through the University of Arizona, in as few as two years, you will be able to complete your degree with a concentration in applied epidemiology, health services administration or health promotion. Enroll today to learn from world-class instructors at the Zuckerman College of Public Health, ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the 25th best public health graduate school in the country.