Testing for Zika limited to high-risk patients
Posted March 4, 2016
Chapel Hill, N.C. — As the Zika virus spreads, concerns over testing and travel are growing.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 153 people in the U.S. have been infected with the mosquito-borne virus. Five of those are in North Carolina, including one in Wake County.
All of the North Carolina cases are people who were bitten by a mosquito in a country where there is an outbreak of Zika, such as Central or South America or Caribbean countries.
"I think it's highly unlikely we'll see mosquito-borne cases" in North Carolina, said Dr. David Weber, a professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a professor of medicine and pediatrics at the UNC School of Medicine.
Although the number of travel-related cases of Zika will likely rise in North Carolina, Weber said, the state's climate is not conducive to the type of mosquitoes that carry the virus.
"Much like West Nile (virus), we’ll see a classic epidemic curve, with lots of cases before it plateaus, and then cases will fall," he said.
UNC researchers are studying the virus to understand how it works and are treating infected patients.
"We will, are and expect to be a referral center for infected pregnant women and for children who might have Zika infection and congenital problems," he said.
Testing for Zika is now available only through the CDC.
"They want to preserve the tests now for the people we most need to intervene on, that is pregnant women and men who have been down there and infected their potentially pregnant partners," Weber said.
Several cases of sexually-transmitted Zika have been reported in the U.S., and the virus is believed to be linked to birth defects in babies whose mothers have been infected.
"Is it all phases of pregnancy at risk? How long can a male infected transmit the disease? Will we find female-to-male transmission?" Weber said, citing some of the many questions researchers still have about the virus.
The UNC School of Medicine plans to launch a series of epidemiological studies with partners in Nicaragua.
"If we can’t diagnose who’s infected, then we can’t think about interventions," Weber said. "We won’t be able to, can’t develop a vaccine if don’t know who is infected."
The state Department of Health and Human Services is hiring two medical entomologists to study and monitor mosquitoes in North Carolina, and the agency urged travelers to follow CDC recommendations to limit their exposure to mosquitoes, such as wearing an insect repellent registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants and using air conditioning or making sure window and door screens are in place.