Zika testing proposal doesn’t boost surveillance, Ontario public health officials say

(CNN) — Public health officials are hoping to speed up the detection of the Zika virus, but a proposed bill to make the tests more widely available isn’t going to help matters much.

Under the Urban Mosquito Control (Safety) Act, the province would be able to ask the Department of Public Health to issue a special order requesting the use of two of the newest rapid test technologies by a select group of laboratories.

Zika symptoms can include rash, fever, joint pain and red eyes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the symptoms can mimic other diseases and some people are not infected.

The Department of Public Health, which oversees Ontario’s public health service, announced the proposed legislation after the World Health Organization announced it was cutting ties with the International Zika Working Group and halted progress on finalizing protocols for the eventual human test of a test.

The Ontario Review Group on International Contaminants and Drugs, formed by the province and comprised of experts in infectious diseases and reproductive health, reports annually to the health minister and looks into public health issues. It issued a report last year warning that new viruses were coming and that the world was running out of time to prepare.

The group identified three areas of concern: treatments for influenza, the Zika virus and antibiotic resistance.

“A public health emergency response could be in a very short period of time,” said Dr. Sue Reid, a physician and director of infectious diseases at Toronto Western Hospital.

Last year, Zika was identified as the cause of the first birth defects attributed to the virus. The group’s report found a strong connection between microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads, and the virus.

Though people usually recover from the virus in the vast majority of cases, it can remain in the brain or cause serious health complications in pregnant women, according to the CDC.

Sixty-one cases of Zika virus infection have been confirmed in Ontario, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. In October 2016, one case was reported in Toronto.

“Providing essential, life-saving tools to the public can help enhance the prevention of and response to pandemics,” the department said. “When faced with a public health emergency, governments must act with speed and urgency, with the long-term health and well-being of citizens and families, and people from across our province, in mind.”

“A Zika vaccine is still a few years away. This is a much-needed quick fix.”

Dr. Ernesto Savoia, a senior scientist at Public Health Ontario, says the proposal does nothing to address the prioritization of rapid tests.

“We are proposing that … we be allowed, in Ontario, to have limited access to those newer tests, even though the World Health Organization is closing down the working group,” Savoia said.

“The less-effective test will be kept,” he said. “We need a good early diagnostic test. And the majority of Americans will not get that test, even though it is much better than the current systems that we have.”

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