Local researcher talks about contracting the Zika virus


What's it like getting the Zika virus? A researcher at IU School of Medicine in South Bend knows. He contracted the mosquito-borne illness in 2013 while in French Polynesia.

Today, Limb Hapairai is helping research the mosquito that gave him Zika virus. Hapairai is a post doctoral fellow researching the Aedes aegypti mosquito at IU School of Medicine. That species is responsible for transmitting illnesses like dengue, chikungunya and Zika Virus.

In 2013, the Oxford trained researcher was in his native country of French Polynesia. Hapairai was doing research on mosquito-borne illnesses when he contracted Zika. At the time, the country was experiencing an outbreak of the virus and they believed it was linked to the Aedes aegypti.

"I came home with a headache, low fever, and everything started to scratch. That went over for 3 days. On the second day, I started to have a rash on the back, stomach, between fingers, ears. Just very itchy places," says Hapairai.

Hapairai says the Ministry of Health declared a public health emergency for the country and asked people to reduce the mosquitoes breeding sites by eliminating standing water. Because Aedes aegypti is a day-biting mosquito, health officials also asked people to protect themselves with repellant, by wearing proper clothing and staying inside during the day. Something Hapairai says is difficult in that tropical climate -- which fueled the outbreak.

"You are looking at a country where it is not like here where you have air conditioning everywhere. And a lot of the jobs are in places where you are outside and you don't want to be wearing long sleeve in 99 degree weather. Shorts or tee shirts, that, is what you wear in the tropics," says Hapairai.

Hapairai's one-year-old daughter, his wife, and neighbors contracted Zika too. While death and severe complications from Zika are extremely rare, the symptoms can last several days.

"What I remember particularly is on the third day everything started to swell, particularly the joints. So your finger would be double the size. Your ankles are swollen so you can't walk. You are not hungry. You are lethargic for about a week," says Hapairai.

And now, researchers believe Zika may be responsible for an increase in babies born with a severe birth defect called microcephaly. It has prompted the World Health Organization to declare an international public health emergency.

Hapairai has a passion for learning more about the illness and how to stop the spread. He is now working under Associate Professor of Medical and Molecular Genetics at IU School of Medicine, Molly Duman Scheel. They are trying to find ways to stop the mosquito from surviving and spreading these viruses.

"That is really important right now. We don't have any vaccines for these diseases except yellow fever. We don't have vaccinations for illnesses like dengue that are usable in this country yet -- or zika. We could be several years down the line before we have a zika vaccination. So all we can do right now in the absence of those vaccines or drugs to treat the disease is to target the mosquitoes themselves," says Scheel.

For now, Hapairai is in the lab, but he hopes to one day go back to French Polynesia and help the people now fighting the Zika virus and its consequences.

"So it is definitely a personal mission for me to get rid of these diseases," says Hapairai.

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