Disease Detective

Respecting the ‘enemy’ key to fighting Zika, grad says

Tyler Sharp

During a dengue epidemic in Fiji, Tyler Sharp worked with local residents, including this man and his children.

Story by Rob O’Flanagan

Tyler Sharp is an international disease detective with a profound respect for the viruses he investigates. He also harbours a fairly virulent loathing for them.

The curious, meticulous scientist is intrigued by the tiny, potentially deadly organisms – by their elegance, simplicity and potency. But he is driven to combat and eliminate them, to prevent the harm they wreak on individuals and communities.

While an undergraduate at the University of Guelph, Sharp picked up a fascination for viruses that went viral. The American epidemiologist was rst exposed to the science of virology here in the early 2000s. Ever since, he has been compelled to learn as much as possible about the pathogenic mechanisms of the organisms.

“You’ve got to respect your enemy,” says Sharp, 35, who leads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Zika outbreak response in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. He is stationed at CDC’s dengue branch in San Juan. The outbreak began in late 2015 and o cially ended this June.

As the team leader in Puerto Rico, Sharp was in charge of detecting human Zika cases through- out the island. As viral hot spots emerged, he dispersed vector control teams to eliminate mosquitoes, and deployed community educators to raise awareness of the virus and how to prevent its spread. Those efforts reduced transmission rates.

“Viruses are very simple, but obviously they can have such catastrophic consequences,” he says during a telephone conversation.

Sharp completed his undergraduate degree in molecular biology and genetics at U of G, and a doctorate in molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

But he also possesses skills acquired during post-graduate training in CDC’s epidemic intelligence service that place him at the tip of the spear of outbreak responses around the world.

Zika typically involves fairly mild, u-like symptoms, and treatment is similar to that used for in uenza. But the virus is especially worrisome because of its links to birth defects. Infected pregnant women can give birth to babies with microcephaly, characterized by an abnormally small head and underdeveloped brain.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Zika, but I also have a very strong loathing for it,” Sharp says. “When you see rst-hand the e ects of this virus on newborn kids, it’s something that you don’t forget.”

Sharp’s scienti c and career trajectory took a dramatic turn as an undergraduate at U of G. Still a teenager, and looking for adventure, he moved to Guelph in 2000 from his hometown of Bowling Green, Ohio.

Inspired by the 1997 futuristic lm Gattaca, which is all about the genetic engineering of human beings, Sharp enrolled at the University determined to become a geneticist. But he had his scienti c mind altered and his professional path reoriented after “literally two lectures” in Peter Krell’s microbiology class in the Depart- ment of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

“His class really inspired me to go the virology route,” Sharp says. “He was an early mentor of mine.”

Sharp calls his time at Guelph formative.

“The four years at U of G really did shape the rest of my life, both personally and professional- ly. I am so indebted to Guelph for providing the education that it did, especially on the scienti c front. I feel very lucky to have gone there.”


TOP 5 ZIKA FACTS

  1. Zika virus is primarily spread through infected mosquitoes or sex.
  2. The best way to prevent Zika is to avoid mosquito bites.
  3. Zika is linked to birth defects.
  4. Pregnant women should not travel to areas at risk of Zika.
  5. Returning travellers infected with Zika can spread the virus through mosquito bites and sex.

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