Catching you up on the Zika virus

By GREGORY ZELLER //

With one confirmed Zika virus case already recorded and a dozen concerned calls coming every day from pregnant women, Northwell Health has opened its second Zika-focused clinic in as many months.

The former North Shore-LIJ Health System this week announced the opening of the Zika in Pregnancy Clinic at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. The Pregnancy Clinic won’t do actual Zika virus testing, but will help calm the fears of expectant moms worried about their babies’ health – and will reach out to the New York Department of Health for testing as necessary, streamlining an arduous paperwork-and-approval process.

“You basically have to reach out to the state and explain the situation,” noted Terry Lynam, Northwell Health’s vice president of communications. “And the state basically authorizes you to submit blood samples for testing.”

Obstetricians, gynecologists and emergency physicians throughout Northwell Health regularly collect blood and urine samples from pregnant women, and since January have been sending samples meeting certain Zika-potential benchmarks to the state. Between Jan. 21 and March 7, the system submitted 295 samples to the Health Department, the lion’s share collected through outpatient Northwell facilities such as OB/GYN practices.

While most have come back negative for Zika virus, one sample did test positive, according to Lynam, who said the sample came from a patient at North Shore University Hospital and most likely involved an international-travel scenario. Northwell Health stressed in a statement that “to date, there have been no locally acquired cases of the Zika virus in the United States.”

Northwell will now send the Health Department samples from satellite facilities, emergency-room situations and the Zika in Pregnancy Clinic. Starting this week, maternal fetal medicine consultations – including viral testing – will be offered at the clinic, by appointment, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays.

After an initial consultation, if necessary, the clinic will obtain Department of Health approval and then draw blood samples for Zika virus testing. The tests involve two blood samples, one to check for viral particles in the mother’s blood, the other to check for antibodies that show exposure to the virus.

The blood samples are processed at the Health Department’s Wadsworth Arbovirus Laboratory in Albany. Checking for the viral particles takes about a day, though the exposure test can take up to two weeks.

Patients who test positive for the viral particles will undergo ultrasound testing to check for calcium deposits in the fetal brain and liver, two signs of potential Zika virus infection.

The new NSUH clinic doesn’t involve any new construction, but instead sets aside space, staff and those Wednesday hours to accommodate the many worried moms who’ve been calling in.

“They’re carving out chunks of the day to see the women who are calling,” Lynam said, noting the Manhasset hospital was the ideal place to centralize a Zika-pregnancy effort, since it houses “the largest fetal medicine program in the system.”

The Zika in Pregnancy Clinic was announced the same day the World Health Organization advised pregnant women to steer clear of Zika-outbreak zones and to abstain from sex, or use safe-sex practices, with partners who travel to affected areas. The WHO warning echoes advisories previously issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although Zika causes only mild flu-like symptoms in many patients – or no symptoms at all, with some 80 percent of infected individuals remaining asymptomatic – the virus has been linked to birth defects after otherwise healthy pregnancies. Countries most seriously affected by Zika have reported a significant increase of babies born with the congenital birth defect microcephaly, which is marked by a small head size and substandard brain development.

Zika virus – which is related to dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and West Nile virus – has spread eastward rapidly over the last few years, first to French Polynesia and eventually into the Caribbean, then on to Central and South America. It is now “spreading explosively” through the Americas, according to the WHO.

The two Northwell efforts are among several Long Island-based attempts to deal with the Zika virus, including bio-research determined to stop that rapid spread.

Codagenix, a 2012 startup cofounded by Farmingdale State College biology professor J. Robert Coleman and former Stony Brook University assistant research professor Steffen Mueller, said in January it would focus its proprietary software platform, which “re-codes” viruses to create potential vaccines, on Zika.

And in February, Medford-based Chembio announced it had been awarded a $550,000 grant from Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, namesake of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, to develop a rapid point-of-contact test for the Zika virus and related illnesses.

While those laboratory-based efforts are focused primarily on stopping the spread of the virus, the new Zika in Pregnancy Clinic – while it will offer those testing services when required – is meant first and foremost to offer a little peace of mind, noted Dr. Burton Rochelson, Northwell Health’s chief of maternal fetal medicine.

“When you have … so much fear and demand for answers in the community, it’s better to concentrate the efforts in a coherent program,” said Rochelson, also NSUH’s director of obstetrics. “It’s a needed service for both pregnant moms, who are understandably anxious, and for their physicians.”