UT researchers develop tool to predict Zika spread in real-time

With spring in the air, so are mosquitoes and the fear of the Zika virus. (Foto: CDC / James Gathany)

With spring in the air, so are mosquitoes and fear of the Zika virus.

But researchers at the University of Texas, like PhD candidate and co-author Lauren Castro, are hoping to curb the risk with a computer model designed to predict the spread of the virus in real-time.

For Zika to spread in Texas, two things have to happen: "An infected individual has to return from outside of Texas, because Zika is not endemic here, and then the second event that has to occur is that the conditions have to be suitable for a mosquito to bite that infected individual," Castro said.

That mosquito has to then infect another person, and they usually only live for up to a month.

Tracking the spread of Zika can be challenging. That's because the infections are mostly asymptomatic, meaning the symptoms don't show.

"If you don't show symptoms, then you're less likely to go to the doctor's office and report that you might have Zika," Castro said.

That makes the number of reported cases few and far between.

The model Castro and fellow researchers are using to predict Zika outbreaks takes into account two things: The number of cases reported and the environment where it exists.

"Our model shows where the high risk areas are in the state, and this could help public health officials determine where they could focus surveillance efforts this year," Castro told CBS Austin.

Those factors include population density, temperature, and travel, which their model uses to predict the impact of potential outbreaks.

The highest risk areas in Texas are Houston and the Rio Grande Valley.

So far, in Texas, this year, 12 cases of Zika have been reported.

"Once you've detected one individual who's infected, it actually means you have 10 or 20 because then your outbreak has progressed," Castro said.

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