Healthcare News & Insights

Texas hospitals develop rapid detection Zika virus test

MosquitoTexas Children’s Hospital and Houston Methodist Hospital have developed the country’s first hospital-based rapid detection test for the Zika virus, which was declared by the World Health Organization (WHO) a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Feb. 1, 2016. 

The virus, which is largely transmitted by the aggressive Aedes aegypti mosquito, is a flavivirus that contains RNA as its genetic material. And, according to a news release from Texas Children’s Hospital, “the new diagnostic test identifies virus-specific RNA sequences to directly detect [the] Zika virus.”

This is important because the virus is part of the same family as yellow fever, West Nile, chikungunya and dengue, and the test can distinguish the Zika virus infection from the others.

The test can be performed on blood, amniotic fluid, urine or spinal fluid and provides results within several hours.

Prior to this test, hospitals faced long delays of testing in local and state public health laboratories and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Hospital-based testing that is state-of-the-art enables our physicians and patients to get very rapid diagnostic answers. If tests need to be repeated or if our treating doctors need to talk with our pathologists, we have the resources near patient care settings,” said James Musser, MD, PhD, chair of the department of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital and leader of the Houston Methodist test development team, along with Randall Olsen, MD, PhD, director of the molecular diagnostics laboratory.

Spread of virus

Currently, the virus has already spread to at 34 countries and territories. The WHO estimates as many as 4 million people in the Americas may become infected with the Zika virus over the next year, according to a Reuters report.

However, experts agree that the virus is unlikely to spread widely throughout the United States because the Aedes aegypti mosquito isn’t common here except for in parts of the far south and Hawaii.

So why the big uproar even in the U.S.?

According to the CDC, evidence suggests a connection between the Zika virus infection and an increased risk for congenital microcephaly and other abnormalities of the brain and eye. And since there isn’t a vaccine and vaccine developers say they won’t have one for widespread public use for months if not years, this could potentially be a big problem now that new evidence shows the virus could be transmitted through sex.

Therefore, men who travel to parts of the world where the virus is actively spreading – Latin American and Caribbean countries – could bring the virus back to the U.S. and give it to their female partners.

CDC investigation

Currently, the CDC is investigating 14 new reports of the virus transmission through sex.

Before this, scientist thought sexual transmission of Zika to be rare. But if all 14 cases are related to sexual transmission, then they believe there’s no other way than sex that these women could have contracted it.

In all 14 CDC cases, the women who live in the U.S. had sex with men who traveled to countries with active Zika transmission through mosquito bites, and developed symptoms of the virus (fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain and headache) within two weeks of their male partners’ symptoms, according to another Reuters’ report.

We know that the virus can exist in semen longer than in blood, but it’s not known how long the virus is present in semen of men who have had Zika.

What can your facility do?

While most hospitals ask on intake forms and such if the patient has traveled out of the country recently, you also need to ask about spouses’ traveling history. There are no reports of women spreading the virus to their male partner.

If, however, your providers come across male patients who’ve traveled to an infected area, the CDC recommends advising the couple to abstain from sex for a period of time or use condoms every time they have vaginal, anal or oral sex.

For pregnant women, the CDC recommends that couples use a condom correctly and consistently for the duration of the pregnancy, or abstain from sex entirely during the pregnancy.

Authorities are now recommending that all pregnant women who’ve traveled to outbreak areas get tested. However, only patients at Texas Children’s or Houston Methodist hospitals can get the test. But they’re considering referral testing from other facilities in the future.

Patients eligible for the test need to have a positive travel history and symptoms of the Zika virus or asymptomatic pregnant women with a positive travel history to any of the affected countries.

“With travel-associated cases of the Zika virus becoming more prevalent in the United States, coupled with the looming increase in mosquito exposure during spring and summer months, we must be prepared for a surge of Zika testing demand,” said James Versalovic, MD, PhD, pathologist-in-chief at Texas Children’s and leader of the Texas Children’s Zika test development team along with James Dunn, PhD, director of medical microbiology and virology at Texas Children’s.

“We must provide answers for anxious moms-to-be and families who may experience signs and symptoms or may simply have travel history to endemic areas.”

For a full list of Zika virus affected countries/regions click here.

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