Genital wart cream may offer unexpected disease protection

Researchers have recently uncovered a possible application for a common genital wart treatment in the fight against mosquito-borne viruses.

In the UK, mosquitoes are typically regarded as a mere nuisance, but in countless areas across the globe they represent a significant risk to billions of people. While malaria and zika are among the most well known viruses transmitted by mosquitoes, there is a considerable variety of potential infections across the globe, and they are believed to be responsible for over 700 million infections, and one million fatalities, each year.

Unfortunately, many of these viruses are without a cure, or an effective vaccine. The sheer volume of mosquitoes in warm or tropical areas means that containment is near-impossible, and protective measures are often insufficient.

Researchers at the University of Leeds, however, have been investigating a potential application a widely available treatment for genital warts may hold for preventing a number of prevalent viruses transmitted by mosquitoes.

While this new treatment may seem incongruous at first, it may well signify a breakthrough in our ability to manage a potentially devastating threat to billions of people across the globe.

What is the Treatment?

Imiquimod, the active ingredient in Aldara, is typically used as a genital warts treatment. When applied to the warts, it stimulates a significant immune response in certain cells in and around the treated area, which can help the body to fight off the appearance of warts much faster.

By treating the site of infection – or the bite itself – with imiquimod, a powerful immune response can be triggered, thus preventing the virus from taking hold within human hosts.

This is of course, particularly beneficial for a number of reasons. By addressing a number of conditions with a single, readily available, and authorised treatment, the next stage of inquiry can be simplified, and countries most impacted by these viruses will be able to avoid utilising environmental control factors, which have caused some controversy.

What are the Viruses?

So far, researchers have identified four viruses, all of which are most commonly spread via bites from mosquitoes, and currently feature no definitive cure or preventative vaccination. For serious cases, supportive hospital treatment is the only option. Taking preventative measures against mosquito bites remains the best defense against infection.

  • The dengue virus - One of the most prevalent mosquito-borne viruses in the world. Many will experience few symptoms, although complications do occur – particularly in younger people – and while the symptoms can be successfully managed through supportive treatment in hospital, it can be fatal.
  • The West Nile virus - Found in many countries, though particularly prevalent in America during the summer and autumn months. Relatively few people develop any symptoms at all, and those who do will typically find them manageable. They can, however, lead to further complications and require supportive hospital treatment.
  • The zika virus - Prevalent on many continents, from Southern and Central America to Africa and Asia. Between 2015 and 2016, an outbreak of the virus was classed as an epidemic. While the vast majority of infected adults will suffer from little to no side effects as a result of this virus, it is of particular concern to pregnant women. Birth defects have been linked to in utero infection, with significant cases in Brazil.
  • The chikungunya virus - Prevalent in many areas around the world, this virus does not often lead to severe complications, and fatalities are relatively rare.

What Does This Mean for Travellers?

This new research could prove invaluable to those living in or travelling to areas with a high level of risk, but further testing is necessary before imiquimod can be considered a reliable and effective treatment for mosquito bites.

Until that time, travellers to areas known for mosquito-borne viruses are currently advised to take additional measures to ensure that the risk of a bite is kept to a minimum.

How to Protect Yourself When Travelling to High Risk Areas

Wearing long trousers and sleeves, using mosquito repellent regularly, and avoiding areas of still water – or where a high level of mosquitoes has been reported – will all reduce the risk of infection considerably. Of course, this does not guarantee protection against mosquitoes; education and awareness remain essential for anyone living or travelling to high risk areas.

The same goes for all risks posed to travellers. Protecting your health abroad requires a comprehensive approach to ensure that all risks are mitigated, and that your immune system is not put under strain. Including a travel pack with prescription antibiotics within your luggage will ensure that you are equipped with safe and reliable treatments for a wide range of common conditions afflicting travellers abroad.

While antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections, such as those mentioned above, they do represent a strong line of defence against many of the most prevalent bacterial infections, such as food poisoning and urinary tract infections, which will enable you to return to a better state of health without requiring a hospital visit.

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