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WHO endorses speedy test for TB

By Melissa Gray, CNN
  • The test diagnoses tuberculosis in 100 minutes
  • Current tests take as long as three months
  • TB killed an estimated 1.7 million people in 2009

London (CNN) -- The World Health Organization endorsed a new, rapid test for tuberculosis Wednesday that cuts the diagnosis time for patients from months to hours.

The test will be especially relevant in countries most affected by the disease, which killed an estimated 1.7 million people in 2009, the WHO said.

It means patients can now be diagnosed accurately in about 100 minutes, compared to the current tests for tuberculosis (TB) that can take as long as three months.

"This new test represents a major milestone for global TB diagnosis and care," said Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of the WHO's Stop TB department. "It also represents new hope for the millions of people who are at the highest risk of TB and drug-resistant disease."

The global health organization said it endorsed the test after 18 months of rigorously assessing its effectiveness in the field in the early diagnosis of TB, an infectious disease that spreads through the air.

Evidence so far indicates the test could result in a three-fold increase in the diagnosis of patients with drug-resistant TB and a doubling in the number of HIV-associated TB cases diagnosed in areas with high rates of both diseases.

"This is really a groundbreaking and revolutionary new test," said Dr. Karin Weyer of the WHO's Stop TB department. "The last new test we had for TB was ... in the 1940s, and smear microscopy more than 100 years ago, and this is really the first breakthrough we've seen in rapid diagnosis of TB."

Faster diagnosis has two main benefits, Weyer said. It prevents premature deaths from the disease, because patients can be treated earlier, and it interrupts the chain of transmission of both tuberculosis and MDR-TB, or multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.

"Where we could rapidly get TB and MDR-TB diagnosed and treated, it would have a significant impact on the global problem of TB," Weyer said.

TB bacteria usually attack the lungs, but they can also attack any part of the body such as the kidneys, spine, and brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If not treated properly, TB can be fatal.

A person with infected lungs can easily spread the disease by simply coughing, sneezing, speaking, or singing.

The disease is most prevalent in Southeast Asia and Africa. Weyer said 22 countries together make up 80 percent of the global TB problem.

The WHO called for the test to be implemented around the world, though it acknowledged that affordability of the test is a key concern.

The co-developer of the test said Wednesday it negotiated a 75% reduction from the current market price for 116 low- and middle-income countries where TB is endemic, with an additional discount once there is significant demand.

"There has been a strong commitment to remove any obstacles, including financial barriers, that could prevent the successful roll-out of this new technology," said Dr. Giorgio Roscigno, chief executive of the Foundation for Innovative and New Diagnostics, which helped develop the test. "For the first time in TB control, we are enabling access to state-of-the-art technology simultaneously in low, middle and high income countries. The technology also allows testing of other diseases, which should further increase efficiency."