CDC ships Zika test for pregnant women

Lauran Neergaard
Associated Press

Washington — The government is shipping Zika virus tests for pregnant women to health departments around the country, but warning there could be temporary shortages, as travelers try to tell if they returned with an infection that could put a developing baby at risk.

Health officials don’t expect widespread transmission of the mosquito-borne virus in the continental United States, but said Thursday that Puerto Rico is especially vulnerable. They asked for emergency funding from Congress to battle an outbreak that is quickly spreading through Latin America.

“We may see rapid spread through the island and we need to respond urgently,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a Senate appropriations subcommittee.

The Zika virus is suspected of causing a rare but potentially devastating birth defect, an abnormally small head, which can indicate underlying brain damage. Brazil has reported an apparent increase in cases of that defect, called microcephaly, as Zika exploded in that country, although scientists haven’t definitively proven the link.

His agency last month found the Zika virus in the brain tissue of two dead newborns from Brazil and in placentas from two miscarriages. On Wednesday, European researchers caring for a woman who returned there from Brazil reported a post-abortion autopsy that found the virus in her fetus’ severely damaged brain.

If someone is actively infected, the CDC has a test that diagnoses Zika fairly well. But most people experience no symptoms or very mild one, and the antibody test used to tell afterward if they were infected isn’t very accurate. It might reflect prior infection with related viruses instead.

The CDC is urging pregnant women or those trying to become pregnant not to travel to Zika-affected areas. But if they already did, the CDC is telling doctors to test the women for Zika between two weeks and 12 weeks after they return.

Looking for a vaccine

Brazil has signed an agreement with a Texas research hospital to develop a vaccine against the Zika virus, the country’s health minister said Thursday, adding the goal is for the vaccine to be ready for clinical testing within 12 months.

Minister Marcelo Castro said at a news conference that the government will invest $1.9 million in the research, which will be jointly conducted by the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and the Evandro Chagas Institute in the Amazonian city of Belem — two facilities specializing in study of mosquito viruses.