Mar 6, 2017
District health officials botched Zika testing for more than 400 Washington, D.C. residents last year, including 300 pregnant women. At least 9 of the 300 pregnant women were incorrectly told they did not have the virus when in fact they were infected. Zika virus can have potentially devastating consequences for pregnant women. The mistakes have prompted retesting for the Zika virus of all the specimens by the CDC.
The mistake was caught when Anthony Tran, the new head of the lab, discovered that Zika markers weren’t being found in any specimens. Even the control test which should have tested positive for Zika, tested negative.
The D.C. public health lab, like most labs around the country, is very busy. In addition to testing food and substances for the government, they test water pollution in the Potomac and help identify strains of the flu virus that should be included in next year’s vaccines. Add to that the Zika crisis which strained an already overloaded lab.
In the year before it confronted Zika, the public health lab was shedding its most experienced staff, including the loss of its virology director. In March 2016, three of the lab’s six quality assurance jobs were vacant. One lab worker acknowledged that preparing for Zika in the early months of last year with a thin staff was “a mad scramble.”
Cutbacks have crippled the lab, forcing it to limp along with too few workers, inexperienced workers to boot. And who pays for the mistakes caused by the cutbacks? Pregnant women, and babies born with microcephaly and other major defects. This is what it means when the health of the population is not the top priority.