A commonly used malaria drug might protect foetuses from being infected with the Zika viruses, according to new research by scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine. This is an important finding with the possibly simple solution to prevent babies being born with developmental deformities associated with the disease.
India has just recorded its fourth case of Zika. A 27-year-old man in Tamil Nadu was found infected with the Zika virus. Three cases were detected earlier this year in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Zika was declared a Public Health Emergency of International concern for much of 2016, after Zika infections were reported in many parts of the world and took a heavy toll on Brazil.
Zika often manifests as mild symptoms like fever and rash in adults but babies born to women infected with the virus can ave microcephaly, a condition in which the brain is small and underdeveloped. So far, there has been no vaccine or drug to protect pregnant women and their foetuses from infection.
A team of scientists from Washington University School of Medicine have studied pregnant mice infected with Zika and found that the Zika virus infects a foetus by manipulating the body’s normal barrier to infection. The body normally mobilises many defensive mechanisms to protect a growing foetus and the placenta is the last line of defense against infection being transmitted from the mother. The research team had previously found that the Zika virus can invade rhe placenta and also multiply there.
To learn more about how Zika breaches the placenta, the researchers infected human placental cells with Zika virus and that the virus then activated genes related to autophagy – the process by which cells disposed waste and invading microbes. When they treated the cells with drugs to ramp up the autophagy pathway, they found that a larger number of cells became infected with the Zika virus increased. Drugs that suppressed autophagy resulted in fewer placental cells infected with Zika virus. This showed that the virus was able to manipulate the body’s own defenses against it.
They then tested the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine – a drug known to suppress autophagy – on pregnant mice. They found significantly lower levels of the virus in foetuses and placentas of mice that had received hydroxychloroquine in comparison to pregnant mice that had been given a placebo. In addition, these placentas of mice that received the malaria drug also showed less damage and the foetuses regained normal growth. Both the untreated and the treated mice mothers had about the same amount of Zika virus in their bloodstreams. The results published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine indicate that hydroxychloroquine was able to protect foetuses even when the virus was circulating through the mother.
The drug is already is approved for use in pregnant women for other medical purposes and the research team suggests further evaluation of the drug in primates and women for use to lower the risks of Zika infection.
How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future
India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.
Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.
Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.
The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.
Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.
The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.
Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.
For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.
The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.
Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.
In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.
While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.
Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.
One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.
Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.
Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.
This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.