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Monday Medical: New flu test is accurate, fast

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Today
Monday Medical
MondayMedical

If you go

What: Northwest Colorado Health Drop-in Flu Clinic

When: noon to 2 p.m. Dec. 2

Where: Yampa Valley Bank, 600 S. Lincoln Ave.

More information: Flu shots are available for all ages and pneumonia vaccine is available for adults. Drop-in clinics are for all ages, unless otherwise noted. Bring your insurance card. Cash and checks are accepted.

Think you have flu? This year, you can know for sure.

Yampa Valley Medical Center’s lab has a new flu test that detects the virus with much greater accuracy than previous tests.

“For the longest time, we used a simple, antigen-type of a test. They’re quick, they’re cheap, they’re simple,” said James Wirta, lab director at YVMC. “The problem was, they weren’t very sensitive for picking up the flu.”

That led to a number of false negatives, or situations in which patients actually had the flu, but their flu tests came back negative.

“A physician might suspect flu — it walks like flu, talks like flu — but they get the test back, and it’s negative,” Wirta said. “They may still treat for flu, but the patient doesn’t have the comfort in knowing that it is, in fact, the flu.”

Recently, YVMC’s lab started using the Alere i Influenza A & B test, which can detect influenza A 98 percent of the time, compared to 81 percent for the previous test, and influenza B 93 percent of the time, compared to 65 percent for the previous test.

The new technology is specific and sensitive and can quickly detect the RNA of the flu virus from a simple nose swab. For a number of viruses, such as the flu, RNA acts as the genetic material. Through a polymerase chain reaction process, sections of the RNA are reproduced, so there’s a large enough sample of the molecules to analyze.

PCR technology has evolved through time, making it less expensive and more efficient. Years ago, these tests required a room that was free from other DNA or RNA samples. Now, all that’s needed is a small benchtop machine.

YVMC’s lab has two machines, making it possible to run two samples at the same time. The test is especially helpful for patients who are so sick they’ve checked into the Emergency Department — 15 minutes after taking the test, a physician can quickly determine whether the flu is at fault.

Already this year, Wirta has seen one case of flu in which the old test was negative, while the new test correctly reported that the patient did have flu.

Detecting flu early has various benefits, such as aiding with treatment and helping prevent the spread of the virus — once patients know they have the flu, they might be more likely to stay home and rest instead of continuing to work.

Flu season typically lasts from late fall through early spring. Already in the Yampa Valley, two patients have tested positive for the flu virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine every season, especially those at high risk for the disease, such as children younger than 5, adults older than 65, pregnant women and people with various medical conditions.

Additionally, precautions — such as washing hands frequently, practicing good cough etiquette and limiting close contact with others who are sick — help prevent the spread of the virus.

But if you do come down with the flu this year, you’ll have a better chance of knowing that the flu is actually to blame.

“The technology is just so much better,” Wirta said. “We’re quite excited to have it.”

Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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