Zika Testing: Local Experts Talk Developments And Challenges

Sep 11, 2016
Originally published on September 9, 2016 6:53 pm

A group of researchers and doctors convened in Miami this week to discuss how different specialists are responding to the Zika virus.

Organized by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, the conversation ranged from mosquito control to pediatric research—but one of the hottest topics at the discussion surrounded Zika virus testing.

Researchers at UM have applied for a grant to develop rapid Zika testing.

“It can be done in 20 minutes, on a strip of paper, in a doctor’s office,” said panelist and virus expert Dr. David Watkins, comparing the approach to dengue testing.

Currently doctors have to send Zika samples to the health department or private labs for testing. There’s a backlog of health department test results for many pregnant women.

“It’s a negative impact because if someone’s early first trimester or second trimester and we delay disclosure because we don’t have a result by two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks—that may be long enough for them to be out of the window of being able to terminate that pregnancy,” said Dr. Christine Curry, an obstetrician with UM and Jackson Health System.

The Zika virus has been linked to brain damage in infants of women who were infected during pregnancy. There’s evidence it can cause hearing and vision loss as well.

Curry said it was a good move by the state of Florida to make Zika testing available to pregnant women, but the turnaround on results has been a challenge. She has a list of more than 100 women who were tested in August and September and are still waiting to hear back on their results. And she pointed out it can change the way doctors screen newborns if their mothers haven’t received results by the time they deliver.

“We have to look at that child with a little bit of suspicion,” she said. “Do we do more invasive, more aggressive testing? Do we do blood tests and urine tests and a spinal tap on the child?”

Florida Department of Health representatives in Tallahassee have insisted that testing for pregnant women only takes one to two weeks through DOH. Though when pushed, local officials have said results can take up to four to five weeks.

“The answer is not a straight answer; it’s a complicated answer,” Dr. Lillian Rivera of the Miami-Dade County Department of Health told the panel. She pointed to challenging screening protocol.

Rivera said DOH labs are working on sharing testing responsibilities with private labs like LabCorp and Quest. And Florida is considering getting help from other states.

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