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UT professor researching potential spread of Zika virus

The Zika virus is spreading in Texas. Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services confirmed eight cases throughout the state. Two of the cases are in Dallas County and six are in Harris County. As of Tuesday evening, Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services said there were no confirmed cases to report in Travis County.

At the University of Texas, professor of integrated biology Sahotra Sarkar has been studying the transmission of Dengue Fever for a decade. In the last two weeks he switched gears to hone in on Zika. His research suggests Zika could spread farther and faster than previously thought. Sarkar knows one species of mosquito that's good at carrying the virus, but there may be another.

"It depends critically on if that second species is a very good transmitter of Zika. If it is, then the risk is even worse than what has been made public so far," Sarkar says.

It's likely the Zika virus won't become as prevalent as West Nile Virus, simply because of how Zika is spread. Sarkar puts it on par with Chikungunya.

"It's only humans that can be carriers, so mosquitos get it from one human and transmit it to another. We do not have other animals as hosts that we know of," he explains.

However, humans spreading the virus to each other is a concern. Tuesday, health officials confirmed the first sexually transmitted case in the United States in Dallas County.

"So in that respect, it's somewhat like Ebola in that it can be transmitted by bodily fluids," says Albert Gros, chief medical officer at St. David's South Austin Medical Center.

Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people may have no symptoms at all. The virus itself doesn't pose a serious health risk unless the person who gets it is pregnant.

"It's scary for pregnant women because there is no treatment for microcephaly if your baby is affected," Gros explains.

Microcephaly is a birth defect linked to Zika. It stunts brain growth and can cause developmental abnormalities and delays.

Currently, the virus is spreading in the United States through travelers. "Houston is, after Miami, the major entry point for the disease from Latin America to the United States," says Sarkar. He believes mosquito control here at home is critical to keeping an outbreak at bay.

Doctors are advising women of reproductive age to stay out of known areas in South and Central America where the disease is prevalent. Since Zika can be asymptomatic, blood tests will reveal if you've been exposed to the disease.

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