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Hep C medicine could fight Zika virus

Child born with microcephaly caused by Zika virus
Child born with microcephaly caused by Zika virus

An experimental drug developed to fight hepatitis C could prove to be a useful new weapon against the Zika virus.

The drug, 7DMA, has been shown to hold back the virus in laboratory mice. Infected animals given the treatment took longer to become ill and die.

Zika and the hepatitis C liver disease virus are distant cousins, both based around a single strand of the genetic molecule RNA.

The new drug blocks the replication of RNA that is essential for both viruses to reproduce themselves.

Currently, no anti-viral drug or vaccine exists that can combat Zika, which is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti tiger mosquito.

About a fifth of people infected with Zika develop flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue and joint pain.

A much bigger worry is pregnant women, who can transmit the virus to their unborn babies, causing them to be affected by microcephaly - a serious birth defect marked by an unusually small head and brain damage.

After breaking out on Pacific islands, the Zika virus is now at the centre of a major epidemic in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a state of emergency due to the virus.

Professor Johan Neyts from the Laboratory of Virology and Chemotherapy at the University of Leuven in Belgium, said: "As the Zika virus is related to the hepatitis C virus, we examined whether some inhibitors of the hepatitis C virus also prevent the multiplication of the Zika virus in human cells.

"We have identified at least one experimental drug that is effective against the Zika virus."

7DMA was tested in mice bred to be vulnerable to Zika, that develop similar symptoms to infected humans.

"Treating the infected mice with the hepatitis C virus inhibitor resulted in a clear delay in virus-induced symptoms," said Prof Neyts.

He added: "The experimental hepatitis C inhibitor is not very powerful yet. Nevertheless, our study opens up important new possibilities. We can now start testing the effectiveness of other promising virus inhibitors and vaccines against the Zika virus."

The research was reported in the online journal Public Library of Science Neglected Tropical Diseases.

According to the WHO, mosquito-borne Zika transmission is occurring in 58 countries.

Recent figures show that 23 UK travellers who visited affected regions have been infected.