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CRI Lab Quality Advisor

Laboratories Lead the Fight Against Zika

Published March 18, 2016 10:49 AM by Irwin Rothenberg

We are rapidly approaching Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, (MLPW), the annual celebration of the medical laboratory profession, and those who play such a vital role in the delivery of quality healthcare. It has been celebrated annually since 1975, during the last full week of April, and once again, the vital role of the laboratory is highlighted by recent advances in dealing with the Zika virus—a public health threat, not only locally or nationally, but also internationally.

On February 23rd, USA Today reported that Texas Children’s Hospital and Houston Methodist Hospital had developed a rapid test for the Zika Virus based on genomic research. This new test detects the presence of genetic material from the Zika virus, and this specificity allows the test to distinguish Zika virus infections from other mosquito-borne infections like dengue or the West Nile Virus. This is very significant, since Brazil, as well as many other countries in the Americas, has mosquitos that can carry all these infections, and distinguishing among these facilitates the correct response as rapidly as possible. The tests, which can be performed on blood, amniotic fluid, urine or spinal fluid, will provide results in just a few hours.

This information was provided in an interview with James Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital. “We must be prepared for a surge of Zika testing demand,” Versalovic said. “We must provide answers for anxious moms-to-be and families."

As of February 23rd, 2016, at least 82 Americans had been diagnosed with Zika after visiting areas with Zika outbreaks and returning to the U.S., according to the CDC. Health officials expect hundreds more to develop the virus because of travel, especially as Americans visit Brazil for the Olympic games this summer. The mosquito that spreads the Zika virus, Aedes aegypti, is present in the South. Many public health officials fear that the Gulf Coast could be vulnerable to Zika, due to both its climate and pockets of poverty.

All of that could put pressure on public health laboratories, which could struggle to keep up with the demand for Zika tests, Versalovic said.

Doctors will initially offer the test to people who meet specific criteria—such as recent travel to a place with an outbreak and Zika-like symptoms, which include a rash, join pain or fever. Pregnant women who have traveled to a place with a Zika outbreak also will be offered the test, regardless of whether they have symptoms, according to Texas Children's Hospital. Four out of five people with Zika infections have no symptoms.

Whenever possible, we should proudly celebrate the contributions of our profession to public health and safety, and the leadership role that laboratories and laboratory professionals continue to play.

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