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New, Rapid Tuberculosis Test Revolutionizes Care

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Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization is endorsing a new, rapid test for tuberculosis that it says could revolutionize TB care with an accurate diagnosis in about 100 minutes. The current tests can take up to three months to show results.

The World Health Organization calls this new test a major milestone for global TB diagnosis and care. WHO's Stop TB Department Director Mario Raviglione says the test represents new hope for the millions of people who are at the highest risk of TB and multi-drug resistant TB.

"This is a development in a way that the world has been waiting for, for decades," Raviglione said. "As a matter of fact it is probably the most revolutionary thing we have seen in our lifetime in TB control. Certainly in the past 20 to 30 years there is nothing like that."  

This so-called "while-you-wait" test incorporates modern DNA technology. The sputum of the patient is put in a cartridge, which is placed inside an instrument that looks like a boxy coffee machine.

The co-developer of the test, the Foundation for Innovative and New Diagnostics says the test is fully automated, so it is easy and safe to use. It says the test does not need to be done by specially trained laboratory technicians nor does have to be sent to a laboratory to be diagnosed.

The Foundation for Innovative and New Diagnostics says the machine and cartridge in developing countries costs about $17,000. One test costs under $17.00. This, it says is a 75-percent reduction in the price for countries most affected by TB, compared to the current market price.

The World Health Organization says for the first time, the test will be introduced in developing countries and rich countries at the same time. WHO Stop TB Department Diagnostic Coordinator Karin Weyer says some countries in Africa already have started using the test.

"What we have seen, for example, in countries like South Africa that have started using the test was that patients who normally would have to wait three, four months for the conventional test results to return before they start treatment, were able to start treatment within two days," said Weyer. "And, in a high-HIV setting like South Africa this obviously also has the benefit of preventing early mortality in those patients because they are able to access appropriate treatment as quickly as possible."  

Dr. Weyer says the plan is to scale this up in other countries in Africa, such as Lesotho, Ethiopia, Swaziland, and Uganda. She says eventually the machine will be distributed to 27 high-TB countries throughout the world.

Major improvements in tuberculosis care and control have been made. Nevertheless, WHO reports TB killed an estimated 1.7-million people in 2009 and 9.4-million people developed active TB last year.

WHO says TB is a curable disease if the patient begins treatment early. It says the new, rapid TB test is a major breakthrough, one that might eliminate TB as a political and public health problem in the future.

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