New Test Can Detect TB in Just Two Hours
New Test Can Detect TB in Just Two Hours

A new medical test can detect tuberculosis in less than two hours. Health experts say it could revolutionize the way TB is diagnosed and treated, and also, save millions of lives.

This little girl has tuberculosis. Before the flooding in Pakistan forced her family out of their home, her father said she received medication for TB. Something she doesn't get in this camp.

Crowded conditions are breeding grounds for this deadly disease, whether in Pakistan or in Haiti.

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Testing for TB can be slow. Patients take a sputum test, but doctors say it is not reliable. So a sample is also sent to a laboratory to be cultured. The culture develops slowly and requires highly trained technicians in order to make a diagnosis.

Dr. Gary Simon heads the division of infectious diseases at George Washington University. "Right now, it takes days to weeks to make a diagnosis and determine a resistance pattern," he said.

Now, scientists say they have developed testing equipment that takes only 90 minutes to produce results and is more accurate than current tests.

Dr. David Persing is with the California-based company (Cepheid) that makes the equipment. "A key part of the technology is that it doesn't require a skilled operator to perform the test," he said.

Studies show the test is 98 percent accurate.

Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health says it will play an important role in diagnosing TB in both developing nations and developed ones. "You have something that can be done quickly, on-site so that the person doesn't leave the clinic, because a lot of times they doesn't come back to the clinic, so you have them right there.  You make the diagnosis and you also have a good head start on what type of drug to put them on. It is an enormous advantage over just doing a smear of the sputum," he said.

The testing equipment can cost as much as $30,000. Dr. Fauci says the actual tests are relatively inexpensive and that over time, the equipment will come down in price. "I think it is something that is going to play an important role in the future to determine that this is something that will be used widely, not only in developing nations but also in the developed world," he said.

The testing equipment now needs to be distributed to areas where where tuberculosis is prevalent, inner city areas in the United States and other developed countries.

Dr. Simon sees the cost as an obstacle for use in developing countries. "The areas that need it most are the areas that have the least resources to pay for it," he said.

But Cepheid says it can deliver the system to poor countries for under $10,000.

The World Health Organization says one third of the people around the world are infected with TB and nearly two million people around needlessly die from tuberculosis every year.