With children returning to school, many parents are concerned about their children being exposed to the strain of flu, H1N1, which is commonly referred to as the Swine Flu. Some people are predicting that the risks associated with this strain of influenza could have pandemic implications. As of August 20th, there were 190 confirmed cases in Montgomery, Alabama, where I live. Because of these concerns, well-founded or not, many companies have developed quick tests which can be used by healthcare professionals, in schools, and in other settings. The sales of these tests are soaring.
But how accurate are these tests? According to one study, they are not very accurate at all. Most alarming, the tests do not reveal false positives, but are far more likely to reveal a false negative. In other words, administering the test may actually show that the person does not have the H1N1 virus, while in fact he or she may actually have it.
According to a test conducted by Dr. Christine Ginocchio, director of microbiology, virology and molecular diagnostics of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, the tests may fail as much as half of the time. According to Dr. Ginocchio, one rapid test that she and her staff reviewed identified the Swine Flu in only one out ten cases. Other tests had accurate results in 40% to 69% of the cases studied.
Dr. Ginocchio’s concerns seem to be verified. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has cautioned healthcare professionals about relying on the quick tests. Similarly, the U.S. Navy found that one test it used identified the virus in only half of the cases reviewed.
What this means is that some people may not receive the treatment they need in a timely manner and, worse, may assume they can expose other people because they do not have the potentially deadly influenza virus. Hopefully, the threat of swine flu won’t be as bad as predicted. But, if it is, then testing and vaccines developed should be accurate and should work for the intended purpose.
Sources: The New York Times, Journal of Clinical Virology, and New England Journal of Medicine
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