By Robert Preidt
TUESDAY, Feb. 23, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- The first rapid detection test for the Zika virus has been developed by teams at two Texas hospitals.
The mosquito-borne disease has been linked to -- but not proven to cause -- a severe birth defect in newborns. The birth defect, called microcephaly, results in infants having small heads and often involves brain damage.
It's believed there have been more than 4,100 suspected or confirmed cases of microcephaly in Brazil, the country where the Zika epidemic began.
Since it first surfaced last spring, the virus has spread to over 32 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Health Organization now estimates there could be up to 4 million cases of Zika in the Americas in the next year.
The new test -- developed by researchers at Texas Children's Hospital and Houston Methodist Hospital -- is customized to each hospital's diagnostic laboratory and can provide results within several hours. It can be performed on blood, amniotic fluid, urine or spinal fluid, the researchers said.
"With travel-associated cases of the Zika virus becoming more prevalent in the United States, coupled with the looming increase in mosquito exposure during spring and summer months, we must be prepared for a surge of Zika testing demand," Dr. James Versalovic said in a Texas Medical Center news release.
"We must provide answers for anxious moms-to-be, and families who may experience signs and symptoms or may simply have travel history to endemic areas," he added. Versalovic is pathologist-in-chief at Texas Children's and co-leader of the Texas Children's Zika test development team.
Until now, doctors faced the risk of long waits for tests conducted in local and state public health laboratories, and by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Texas team said.
For now, only registered patients at Texas Children's or Houston Methodist can receive the rapid Zika test. But the two labs may conduct referral testing from other hospitals and clinics in the future, the researchers said.
"Hospital-based testing that is state-of-the-art enables our physicians and patients to get very rapid diagnostic answers," Dr. James Musser, co-leader of the Houston Methodist test development team, said in the news release. Musser is chair of the department of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital.
"This is a significant development as health authorities are recommending all pregnant women who have traveled to a place with a Zika virus outbreak get tested," Musser said.