The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted emergency approval to a new three-in-one laboratory test for mosquito-borne infections, which will soon be distributed nationwide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday said the new lab test could speed the diagnosis of Zika virus infections. The kits that contain the test will be shipped to qualified labs across the United States over the next two weeks.
The kit will allow doctors to determine in a single test whether a person is infected with Zika, dengue or chikungunya, the CDC said, whereas existing methods require three separate tests.
The test kits will be distributed to facilities in the Laboratory Response Network, a group of international and local labs that respond to public health emergencies. The three-in-one test, which is called Trioplex Real-time RT-PCR Assay, will not be given to hospitals or other primary care settings.
Zika has been spreading rapidly throughout the Americas. The CDC said at least 258 people from the United States have contracted the infection while they were traveling abroad. Eighteen of those cases are pregnant women.
The mosquito-borne infection causes only mild symptoms in some people, but it is dangerous among pregnant women. Zika is strongly suspected of causing microcephaly among newborn infants, a rare birth defect that is characterized by an abnormally tiny head and brain damage.
Additionally, a previous study also found a link between Zika and a dangerous brain inflammation called meningoencephalitis among adults.
"That Zika is being linked to this condition is a very serious matter and adds to the growing evidence of the full-spectrum of disease this virus can cause," said Amesh Adalja of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
However, the case of Zika-linked meningoencephalitis has only been detected in one person: an 81-year-old man who acquired the infection while he was on a South Pacific cruise.
Still, health experts are advising the public, especially travelers and pregnant women, to take caution.
Meanwhile, although there is no vaccine for Zika yet, North Carolina-based company BioCryst Pharmaceuticals is developing a new anti-Zika virus drug. So far, the drug has only been tested among mice infected with Zika, but researchers said it is yielding promising results.