Tuberculosis: World Health Organization Endorses a Device for Quicker Diagnosis

The World Health Organization is endorsing a new tuberculosis testing apparatus that does not need trained laboratory technicians and takes less than two hours. Dr. Mario Raviglione, director of the agency’s Stop TB campaign, called it a “major milestone” in diagnosis of selected patients — despite drawbacks like its expense, fragility and need for electricity. Tuberculosis killed 1.7 million people last year, the W.H.O. estimates.

At present, confirming that a patient has tuberculosis usually requires a lab technician trained to read sputum under a microscope. If doctors suspect drug-resistant tuberculosis, it can take up to three months to grow enough to see which antibiotics will kill it.

The new machine, developed by Cepheid, an American company, and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, can confirm tuberculosis and tell if it is resistant to the most common TB drug, rifampicin.

The W.H.O. recommends it for patients who doctors suspect have a drug-resistant strain (globally, about 3 percent do) or who are also infected with the H.I.V. (which is common in some countries, like South Africa).

Even at lower prices for poor countries, each unit, about the size of a countertop coffee machine, costs $17,000, and each test requires a $17 cartridge. It also needs a computer, and annual maintenance costing more than $1,000.

And for case follow-up, the old time-consuming methods must still be used.

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