PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Brazil is at the center of concern over the Zika virus and a researcher from this area is starting his work there today.

From the Pitt Center for Vaccine Research to Brazil, Dr. Ernesto Marques is making an important trip.

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“The health authorities were expecting in 2015 either a dengue or chikungunya outbreak, and something else came up, with very unexpected consequences that at the beginning, no one imagined that was a very serious disease,” Dr. Marques said.

The serious disease is the mosquito-borne virus called Zika.

“Everybody in Brazil realizes how serious the situation is and it caught everybody by surprise,”

The surprise was the alarming number of babies born with microcephaly, or abnormally small heads — a marker of neurologic problems. It’s a rare condition — usually just one in 10,000 births.

“It got the point there were 18 in the same ward,” Dr. Marques said.

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From interviews with new mothers of babies with microcephaly, it seems symptoms of a viral infection in the first trimester are an important element of their history.

“There is a lot of evidences that support it is indeed Zika causing, but it still needs definitive proof,” Dr. Marques said.

The research Dr. Marques will be doing in Brazil moves in that direction — comparing cases of illness with similar people not infected. Also, he will be establishing the natural history of Zika by monitoring people with early symptoms through the first several days of illness.

“I don’t think it’s a problem only for Brazil. It’s a problem for the whole world. And I’m concerned with Brazilian children the same as I’m concerned with African or American children the same way,” Dr. Marques said.

In addition to the important work Dr. Marques will be doing, other pressing questions would include how do we protect ourselves against Zika virus now, what do we do for people who are infected and pregnant, and how can we help these babies who are being born with microcephaly?

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