A new class of nanosensor developed in Brazil could more accurately identify dengue and Zika infections, a task that is complicated by their genetic similarities and which can result in misdiagnosis.

The technique uses gold nanoparticles and can “observe” viruses at the atomic level, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

Belonging to the Flavivirus genus in the Flaviviridae family, Zika and dengue viruses share more than 50 percent similarity in their amino acid sequence. Both viruses are spread by mosquitos and can have long-term side effects. The Flaviviridae virus family was named after the yellow fever virus and comes from the Latin word for golden, or yellow, in color.

“Diagnosing [dengue virus] infections is a high priority in countries affected by annual epidemics of dengue fever. The correct diagnostic is essential for patient managing and prognostic as there are no specific antiviral drugs to treat the infection,” the authors say.

More than 1.8 million people are suspected to have been infected with dengue so far this year in the Americas, with 4000 severe cases and almost 700 deaths, the Pan American Health Organization says. The annual global average is estimated to be between 100 million and 400 million dengue infections, according to the World Health Organization.

Flávio Fonseca, study co-author and researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, tells SciDev.Net it is almost impossible to differentiate between dengue and Zika viruses.

“A serologic test that detects antibodies against dengue also captures Zika-generated antibodies. We call it cross-reactivity,” he says.

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