The Houston Health Department (HHD) is now able to test for the Zika virus in people living in Houston and 17 surrounding counties.
HHD's laboratory can perform the Zika tests in one day, speeding up turn-around time since the department previously needed to ship testing samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for confirmation.
HHD testing, based on technology provided by the CDC, can distinguish Zika from the related dengue and Chikungunya viruses, which can cause similar symptoms and is carried by the same mosquitos in the same geographic regions. It uses polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to simultaneously detect any of the three viruses.
"This is the test of choice to detect the Zika virus in blood within the first seven days after symptoms appear," said Dr. Larry Seigler, chief of HHD's Bureau of Laboratories.
Capacity for local testing begins ahead of the area's mosquito season, spanning from May through October.
HHD can perform Zika tests on lab specimens submitted by Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Hardin, Harris, Jefferson, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Orange, San Jacinto, Walker, Waller and Wharton counties. Physicians, however, must contact their local health department or the Texas Department of State Health Services' Region 6/5S Zoonology Division to secure Zika testing approval.
HHD's laboratory serves as the CDC's Laboratory Response Network facility for the surrounding counties. The network is a group of domestic and international laboratories that can respond to public health emergencies.
The Zika virus is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito. People usually don't get sick enough to go to the hospital and rarely die of Zika.
Zika virus can spread from a pregnant woman to her baby during pregnancy. It has been linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect of the brain in babies of mothers who had the virus while pregnant.
There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine available to treat Zika virus. The best way to avoid Zika virus infection is to prevent mosquito bites