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Researchers trying to prevent virus more dangerous than Zika

PITTSBURGH — Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are leading an effort to prevent a virus that may be more dangerous than Zika from spreading to the United States.

Channel 11 News anchor Peggy Finnegan toured the highly secure lab where local researchers are developing potential therapies and vaccines for Rift Valley fever.

Like West Nile virus, men and nonpregnant women who contract Rift Valley fever may not experience symptoms right away. But those who do may suffer an eye disease, encephalitis or a fever that could turn deadly in less than a week. It has already killed people and livestock in Africa and the Middle East.

"Like we saw with Zika, the virus was primarily in Africa, then it moved to Asia, then it went to French Polynesia and finally, it came here," Pitt Researcher Cynthia McMillen said. "And the public was asking, 'Why don't we know more about this virus?'"


Similarly to Zika, Rift Valley fever can be especially dangerous for pregnant women.

"We know already that there's a potential for the virus to cause miscarriage in humans," McMillen said.

Researchers said they're taking lessons learned from the Zika outbreak of 2017 and applying it to how they study Rift Valley fever.

More than 200 Pennsylvanians tested positive for Zika during that outbreak. It led to travel bans and caused a major health scare at the Olympic games. Major League Baseball also pulled two Pirates games from Puerto Rico because of players' concerns. One of those players was former Pirates pitcher Tony Watson whose wife was pregnant at the time.

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"We saw the effects of Zika when it got into a larger population," Amy Hartman, assistant professor of infectious disease at Pitt, said. "And so, our work highlights the need to really do more investigation into what would happen in pregnant women infected with this virus."

Because of climate change and the way people travel, the research team said there's no way to know if the virus will spread to the United States.

"I think it's very important for us to understand viruses that don't cause disease here, not only to help our neighbors, but to help look into the future if there is a possibility of the virus to come to the States, so we can prevent outbreaks in the future," McMillen said.