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WHO-led Group Unveils New TB Testing Plan


A coalition of international health organizations has launched an initiative to make rapid tuberculosis tests available in poor countries, in an effort to quickly identify and treat cases of TB that might be resistant to standard antibiotics. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

The World Health Organization and a number of global health partners announced the $26.1 million initiative to begin converting laboratories in more than two-dozen of the poorest nations from molecular-based testing to genetics testing for tuberculosis.

The DNA test, called a "line probe assay," could tell clinicians within a day whether someone is infected with a strain of tuberculosis that is resistant to the more common antibiotic drugs so more aggressive therapy can be started.

Current TB tests involving a culture can take weeks to months to process, at a time when the number of cases of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, or MDR-TB, is growing.

Rick O'Brien is head of project evaluation for FIND, a Geneva-based organization that developed the rapid TB test for clinical use and is now helping countries to prepare to use the new laboratory technology.

"We see this test as having the potential to revolutionize the diagnosis of MDR-TB and make a significant contribution to controlling this expanding and critical epidemic," he said.

The initiative follows field trials of the DNA test in South Africa which showed that it performed as well or better than the old-fashioned method of diagnosing TB with a microscope.

Officials says each DNA test costs an average of five dollars, and it takes about one week to train a laboratory technician. A pilot project was conducted in Lesotho, which officials say now has a state-of-the-art laboratory system.

"We say today that Lesotho, one of the poorest countries on the Earth, has a laboratory system that is equivalent to those that you find in the best countries in Europe or North America. So it's something that requires a focused effort but is feasible," said Mario Raviglione, director of Stop TB at the WHO in Geneva.

Ethiopia is expected to be ready to begin using the new DNA TB tests at the end of the year. The technology will be phased in by 14 other countries over the next three years.