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Texas Hospitals Develop Nation’s 1st Rapid Zika Detection Test

Two prominent Texas hospitals developed the nation’s first hospital-based rapid Zika detection test that will cut wait time on receiving virus test results down to several hours.

Pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists at Texas Children’s Hospital and Houston Methodist Hospital announced Tuesday in a press release they collaborated on the Zika “direct test,” which, ultimately, will be customizable to hospital diagnostic labs. The tests will be able to determine if a patient has the virus within hours. Currently, doctors send samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Results can take weeks to return. Even utilizing local and state public health laboratories takes longer time than hospital-based testing, said Dr. James M. Musser, chair of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital, one of the two teams to develop the test.

Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS) unveiled plans this month to screen for Zika through local labs to reduce the wait period in high risk groups, mainly pregnant woman who traveled to a Zika infested region. However, said Musser: “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.”

The Zika direct test can be performed on blood, amniotic fluid, urine or spinal fluid, according to Dr. James Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital and leader of the Texas Children’s Zika test development team.

“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,” Versalovic said. “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.”

The test works by detecting genetic material of the virus, and can distinguish Zika from other viral infections like Dengue or West Nile, Musser also commented.

For now, the test only will be offered to patients at Texas Children’s or Houston Methodist exposed to Zika and exhibit symptoms of the virus such as rash, arthralgias or fever, and to asymptomatic pregnant women who traveled to any of the affected countries. The hospitals said their labs will consider referral testing from other hospitals and clinics.

The CDC reported 82 Americans contracted the virus through travel as of Feb. 17. They also announced Tuesday 14 more people may have contracted the virus in stateside via sexual contact. The nation’s first sexually transmitted case of Zika happened in Dallas, the same city where the first case of the deadly Ebola virus entered the United States in 2014 through an infected Liberian man.

The L.E. and Virginia Simmons Collaborative in Virus Detection and Surveillance sponsored this joint effort to facilitate the rapid development of a test for virus detection in a large metropolitan area, according to the press release. The collaborative formed after the Ebola virus scare.

Presently, there is no vaccine for Zika virus, only preventative measures. Dallas officials said Monday they intend to begin annual mosquito abatement a month early, on Mar. 1. They will be rolling out a simultaneous Zika public service campaign that stresses the steps people can take to minimize mosquito bites, including wearing repellents containing DEET, even though no local mosquitoes have carried Zika virus. “Everybody always wants to ask, what can the county do, what can the federal government do, really it’s what can the citizens do?” said Zachary Thompson, DCHHS director.

Brazil and the University of Texas teamed up to develop a Zika vaccine they hope will be ready for clinical trials within a year and market-ready in three years. For now, the World Health Organization (WHO) continues to advise pregnant women to consult their doctors before traveling to Zika affected countries and even delaying travel. They declared Zika virus and its suspected link to birth defects, a “global health emergency.” During Brazil’s 2015 Zika virus outbreak, incidences of microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with small heads and abnormally deformed brains, increased.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.

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