Riverside scientists announce breakthrough in Zika research

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (KABC) -- For the first time, a baby in Southern California was born with birth defects from the Zika virus and health officials are renewing travel warnings for pregnant women.

The announcement comes even as Southern California researchers announce a new breakthrough in understanding the Zika virus, which they hope someday could lead to a cure.

A woman in San Diego County gave birth to a baby with microcephaly - a condition in which the child is born with a smaller head, resulting potentially in lifelong mental and developmental problems.

To date, no one has contracted the virus from a mosquito while in Southern California. But Los Angeles County health officials say they've recorded 116 cases of travel-associated Zika infections, which is why officials are again advising pregnant women to avoid traveling to countries where Zika is prevalent.

But there is some new hope for those studying ways to fight the disease.

Researchers at the University of California Riverside have made a new discovery about the structure of the virus itself, which they hope could open the door to a possible cure.

Jikui Song and Rong Hai are assistant professors of biochemistry at the University of Riverside whose team is the first to identify what Zika's essential protein looks like.

That will help researchers figure out the virus' weak spot and allow them to target it with a new drug.

"We hope with this discovery it could help us fight back against Zika viruses," said Hai.

The drug could prevent the virus from replicating, leading to it eventually dying.

The UCR biochemists hope their discovery will bring in more funding and more researchers to whittle away at Zika's weaknesses.

In the meantime, health officials are reminding the public that Zika can be sexually transmitted so they are advising both men and women who travel to areas with Zika to use condoms even after they return home.

Women are being told to wait at least two months after travel before trying to get pregnant. Men should wait six months before having unprotected sex.
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