The Hawaii Department of Health has made some major improvements in its ability to test for the Zika virus, following the confirmation of a child born in the state with possible Zika-related birth defects last month.
State laboratories began using a recently developed Zika test at the end of January, just a few weeks after turning to a federal laboratory in Colorado to confirm that the child’s mother had contracted Zika while pregnant, according to a press release issued Wednesday.
Health officials believe the mother of the child born in Hawaii with microcephaly came down with Zika while living in Brazil last year, but the incident raised concerns about the possibility of a Zika outbreak in Hawaii in the future.
The link between Zika and microcephaly — a condition where a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain development issues — has not been proven yet. But the rising number of cases of microcephaly among children born from mothers who had contracted the Zika virus is leading to a crisis-level response from many nations.
There is no vaccine or treatment for the disease. The most dramatic response so far may be in El Salvador, where health officials have started asking women to delay getting pregnant until 2018.
Just like dengue, it is transmitted most commonly by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The mosquito picks up the virus when it bites an infected person, and spreads it by biting another person.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s laboratory in Colorado is currently receiving more than 400 specimens to test every day, a volume that means it could take several weeks for Hawaii to get routine results back, according to a statement from State Laboratories Director Christian Whelen sent by DOH media relations.
Which means Hawaii’s new Zika-testing capabilities are proving useful beyond the state’s borders. The state lab has been providing testing assistance to American Samoa and the Marshall Islands.
“This work helps to better prepare us for potential issues that could arise in our state, and identifying and controlling outbreaks in the Pacific benefits all of us,” Whelen said in the press release.
The test currently being used in Hawaii is best at detecting Zika during the first week of illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shipping Hawaii the supplies it needs to test for antibodies that are typically present later in the illness or after a patient has recovered.
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