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WIU Assistant Professor of Biology Catherine Miller-Hunt exams mosquitoes in her laboratory.
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WIU doctoral student Jason Hunt and Assistant Professor of Biology Catherine Miller-Hunt check one of Vector Biology's mosquito traps.
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WIU Faculty, Students Studying Zika Virus

June 24, 2016

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MACOMB, IL – A group of Western Illinois University student and faculty researchers are spending the summer conducting surveillance of tick-borne diseases and mosquito-borne arboviruses in regional counties.

The Vector Biology Program at Western, led by Assistant Professor of Biology Catherine Miller-Hunt, will soon begin studying how the Zika virus gets into human cells and researching ways to inhibit those entry ways. Miller-Hunt has also done successful research on the measles virus and portions of the Ebola virus at other universities and at WIU.

The Zika virus is spread to people through the bite of an infected mosquito. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes.

The virus is most dangerous when it is contracted by a pregnant woman. It can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, where a baby's head is smaller than the typical size. Currently, the main mosquito vector that can transmit Zika virus is not found in Illinois, and the risk of Zika virus and this vector making it to western Illinois in the near future is slim. However, it is important to learn as much about this virus as possible, before the virus becomes more of a problem than it already is.

This summer, "Team Vector" at WIU is being headed by Jason Hunt, of Vermont (IL), a doctoral student in the Institute for Environmental Studies. The team is searching out the types of mosquitoes found in McDonough, Cass, Schuyler and Fulton counties.

"Team Vector will also determine if any of these mosquitoes harbor viruses, including West Nile Virus and other viruses," said Miller-Hunt.

The Vector team also includes graduate students Michele Rehbein, of Darien (IL) and Sarah Warren, of Mokena (IL), who will each finish their master of science degrees in biology this summer. There are also four undergraduate students working on the project, including Rhiannon Pyle, a biology major from Goreville, IL, Andrew Carlson, a public health major from Quincy (IL) and the husband and wife team of Trent and Leisha Stevenson, both senior biology majors from Macomb.

Recently, students in the WIU Vector Biology program attended the Emerging and Infectious Disease Conference at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, where four students won scholarly awards. In their infectious diseases studies, Jason Hunt won best oral presentation and Samantha Cuthbert, a graduate student in biology from Tinley Park (IL), won the top poster category.

Prestigious Research Experiences for Undergraduates were awarded to Kennen Hutchison, a junior biology major, of Orion (IL), who is spending the summer at the University of Michigan, and Damien Pickens, a sophomore microbiology major from Alton (IL), who is spending the summer at Vermont State University. Both students are active members of the Miller-Hunt Lab and will have the chance to work with top microbiologists to perform research on microbes.

To learn more about the Vector Biology program, visit

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