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Scientists Learn to Detect Zika Virus Using Nuclear-Derived Technique

Participants being trained at the IAEA Seibersdorf laboratories to detect the Zika virus. (Photo: O.Yusuf/IAEA)

More than thirty doctors, epidemiologists, microbiologists and laboratory technicians from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa learned how to use a nuclear-derived technique to detect the Zika virus during IAEA training courses this month. The Zika virus has spread to 34 countries and territories in the Americas and was declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February.

“The quick turnaround and interpretation of results using this technology will be a huge help for our public health system,” said Nicole Christian, a microbiologist with the Department of Microbiology, University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. The early and fast detection of Zika, which is transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is key to managing outbreaks.

The participants learned how to do just that using the reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) molecular detection technique at the IAEA laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria.

The accurate detection of Zika is crucial mainly because the virus has been associated with several neurological complications in adults as well as birth defects, said Octavio Fernandez, a Brazilian doctor working at DASA, a Brazil-based medical diagnostics company. “The principal birth defect is microcephaly, a condition in which the baby has a head that is smaller than the normal size and can lead to problems in the development of the child.” Accurate detection is vital because dengue and Zika symptoms are very similar, Fernandez said. “This sophisticated technique can help to get precise results.”

The course is part of the IAEA’s efforts to assist Member States in dealing with the Zika outbreak. Responding to requests for assistance, the IAEA has already provided RT-PCR equipment to Latin American and the Caribbean countries, and has offered assistance to affected countries in the use of nuclear techniques to control mosquito populations.

The trainees participated in a hands-on training involving practical exercises on the use of RT-PCR and received information about applying procedures recommended by the WHO, the Pan American Health Organization and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to detect Zika.

Going home more prepared

IAEA experts stressed the importance of sample sensitivity and specificity to accurately identify the virus. In the detection process, the application of reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay play an important role.

“The training has been an eye-opener for me; we can get real-time feedback when using the RT-PCR,” said Baltina Watt from the Dominica’s Ministry of Health. “When I go home, I will make recommendations that we need to train our scientists in this technology — we have to be prepared to act quickly and take essential actions to deal with Zika.”

“Such training can only be effective if we integrate what we have learned back home into our health care systems, as Zika is spreading rapidly,” said Cristian Perez Corrales, a microbiologist from the Department of Microbiology at the National Hospital for Children in San Jose, Costa Rica. “We have learned a lot about the latest available technologies, refreshed our technical and medical knowledge and also improved our detection skills in using RT-PCR.”

Pedro Ariel Martinez, a Cuban doctor with the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Havana said: “in my country, we have a very well-established public health system, and though we do use RT-PCR for detection, at this training, I have gained additional technical experience about its use to identify Zika when faced with an epidemiological situation.”

Participants were also informed about support provided to Member States to control the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus through integrating the nuclear sterile insect technique (SIT) into comprehensive mosquito control plans. SIT is a form of pest control that uses ionizing radiation to sterilize male mosquitoes in special rearing facilities, which are then released over target areas, effectively suppressing the insect population over time to protect humans from disease transmission. The IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is spearheading global research in the development and application of SIT.

In March, the IAEA launched a four-year project worth 2.3 million euro to help countries in the Americas apply SIT as part of integrated vector control management.

The training course to strengthen regional capacities for the early and rapid detection of the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean took place from 4 to 15 April 2016.

Practical hands-on training at the IAEA Seibersdorf laboratories. (Photo: O.Yusuf/IAEA)

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