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Promising Zika vaccine testing on humans; but there's a problem

Ninety volunteers are being tested to determine the safest, most effective dose of an experimental vaccine for the Zika virus. (Source: Centers for Disease Control via AP) Ninety volunteers are being tested to determine the safest, most effective dose of an experimental vaccine for the Zika virus. (Source: Centers for Disease Control via AP)

(RNN) - Researchers have taken a step closer to producing a vaccine for the Zika virus, but the future of the trials is in question because of looming budget cuts.

A division of the National Institutes for Health will test hundreds of volunteers with a DNA vaccine after success in animal and early human trials.

This vaccine is not like any other - it is made with a piece of DNA from the Zika virus that, once in the body, resembles Zika enough to trigger the immune system, but does not cause infection, according to the AP.

The researchers will test the vaccine at 11 sites in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Brazil and Mexico.

First, 90 healthy adults will be injected with varying doses of the vaccine to determine its safety and the optimum dosaage. After that, at least 2,400 adults and adolescents who live in areas where the virus is prevalent but have not been infected will be inoculated with the vaccine or given a placebo.

No pregnant women will be involved in the tests, but some will be of child-bearing age. An alarming new study by the Centers for Disease Control underscores the threat the virus poses to fetuses.

New CDC study of birth defects troubling

One in 10 pregnant women in the continental U.S. who were infected with Zika had a child with brain damage or other serious birth defects, according to the exhaustive research the CDC released on April 4, 2017.

The reports came in from 44 states, acting CDC Director Dr. Anne Schuchat told the New York Times, indicating a nationwide problem. Some of the women were infected in the U.S., but all 51 cases of birth defects were caused by infections acquired in Latin America or Puerto Rico.

Mothers who showed no symptoms were just as likely to have babies with birth defects as those who did experience the rash, mile fever and body aches associated with the disease. Eighty percent of Zika victims show no symptoms.

Researchers said more babies from the study may have birth defects that were not immediately apparent, such as hearing and vision impairment and learning disabilities. Microencephaly, the most severe impairment caused by the virus, causes the brain not to develop properly so that the babies have smaller than usual heads.

Future funding for vaccine development uncertain

The vaccine tests that are now ongoing will cost about $100 million and are fully funded through this phase, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is conducting the study. If things go as planned, they could begin Phase 3 as early as the end of this year, but continued funding is the greatest hurdle.

The Trump administration proposed an 18 percent cut to the NIH budget, and what effect that will have on the Zika tests is unclear, CNN reported.

Fauci said the study is a "very high priority" and will remain so.

The danger of birth defects is not the only severe consequence of the disease.

The mosquito-borne virus has appeared in at least 84 countries worldwide. The disease can cause victims to suffer heart problems and some can become infected with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nerve disorder that attacks the immune system and can cause paralysis or death.

Scientists worldwide are feverishly working to find a vaccine, but that's probably at least several years away.

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