Media contact: Caroline Curran, [email protected]

Newswise — CHAPEL HILL, NC—The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday issued an advisory that all U.S. blood banks screen donated blood for Zika virus.

The FDA issued its first guidance in February, when it recommended that only areas with active Zika transmissions screen donated whole blood and blood components for the Zika virus, which was limited to Puerto Rico and two Florida counties.

“There is still much uncertainty regarding the nature and extent of Zika virus transmission,” said Peter Marks, MD, PhD, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “At this time, the recommendation for testing the entire blood supply will help ensure that safe blood is available for all individuals who might need transfusion.”

Dirk Dittmer, PhD, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, has developed a diagnostic test for Zika that is currently being used in his lab. Dittmer is one of more than 10 different groups of researchers at the UNC School of Medicine currently researching the Zika virus – its maternal-fetal transmission, sexual transmission, epidemiology, and vaccine development.

“The FDA decision is based on the best scientific evidence today and will safeguard the safety of the blood supply,” Dittmer said. “This decision follows the precedent set by the 1999 outbreak of West-Nile Virus. It is important to remember, however, that the medical benefit of receiving blood transfusions in a timely manner outweighs the potential risk for Zika infection and that Zika only causes symptoms in a small fraction of the infected.”

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that is primarily carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, though its cousin, the Aedes albopictus, can also carry the virus. In addition to transmission via mosquito, Zika can be transmitted sexually – by men and women to their partners – and through maternal-fetal transmission. While most adults only suffer mild, flu-like symptoms when infected by Zika, Zika can be devastating to fetuses and has been attributed to several birth defects, including microcephaly, in which an infant’s head and brain are underdeveloped.

Myron Cohen, MD, Yeargan-Bate Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and Epidemiology at the UNC School of Medicine and Director of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, is currently researching the sexual transmission of Zika.

“Zika virus is an emerging pathogen with visible, increasing prevalence and rapidly changing prevalence,” Cohen said. “The potential consequences for a pregnant woman are grave. So the decision to ensure the blood supply is Zika-free is a sensible precaution and an essential responsibility.”

UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health Care has several Zika experts available for media interviews.