6 things to know about the search for Zika's patient zero

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While scientists have been conducting in-depth research to understand the newly found link between Zika, fetal abnormalities and other neurological disorders, it seems the virus hasn't always worked this way. In order to better understand the Zika strain that is currently making its way through the Americas, researchers are working to uncover the origins of the virus and the nature of its mutations.

Here are six things to know about the evolution of Zika and the scientific dig to understand the virus' roots, as reported by The Atlantic.

1. Zika was discovered in Uganda in 1947, but it took more than five years before the first human case was detected. "It is challenging to state definitively who the first patient is whoever contracted the virus or brought it to a new country," Ann Powers, PhD, the acting chief of the Arboviral Diseases Branch at the CDC, said in The Atlantic. "What is more important than finding the one specific person is to understand overall movement patterns and assess if there are changes that have occurred — either in the virus, the vectors, or the host behaviors — that may be impacting the epidemiology."

2. 2007 marked the first large outbreak of Zika. It happened in Micronesia, where as many as 75 percent of the population on the Island of Yap became infected. "Like many arboviral agents, given the appropriate environmental and human conditions, new pathogens can be easily moved around the globe," said Dr. Powers.

3. The virus then jumped across the Pacific and, as it traveled, it appeared to change. During a 2013 outbreak in French Polynesia, scientists linked Zika to Guillain-Barré. According to The Atlantic, researchers now believe Zika may have traveled from French Polynesia to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the Va'a World Sprint Championship canoe race in August 2014. In October 2015, there was a noticeable spike of microcephaly cases in Brazil. In April, the CDC confirmed Zika's link to the birth defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. Zika has been tied to approximately 5,000 cases of microcephaly in Brazil alone.

4. When looking into Zika's past, scientists have encountered more questions than answers. Researchers don't know whether Zika is widely proliferated in Africa and Asia, or where the virus was decades prior to its arrival in Micronesia and French Polynesia. They also don't know to what extent Zika may have caused birth defects and other health problems in the prior century.

5. Scientists are recreating the virus in laboratory settings and conducting a sort of reverse engineering to answer some of these questions. One study analyzing Zika's genetic evolution detected more than a dozen potential mutations that may have occurred in the virus on course from Asia to Brazil.

6. Scientists ultimately want to find clues to not only fight Zika now, but allow health officials to prepare for the next mosquito-borne illness outbreak. Globalization and the modern convenience of international travel have facilitated global virus transmission. Christopher Dye, the strategy director in the Office of the Director-General at the World Health Organization, told The Atlantic, "Zika is the latest flavivirus to have escaped from its historical distribution, and to have turned from benign to malignant...we previously saw the spread of dengue, Japanese encephalitis, and West Nile viruses...will yellow fever be next? Is the current yellow fever outbreak in Angola an omen of things to come?"

More articles on the Zika virus: 
Puerto Rico's trash is piling up, making more room for the Zika mosquito  
Children's National Health System launches program to advise pregnant mothers with Zika virus  
Infographic: Where in the US have Zika cases been reported? [May 13 update] 

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