News & Current Affairs

August 14, 2008

Hope over ‘quick’ bird flu test

Hope over ‘quick’ bird flu test

Avian flu virus

Bird flu cannot easily infect humans at present

UK scientists say they are developing a portable testing machine that will detect cases of bird flu in two hours.

Currently it takes about a week to identify the different flu strains because laboratory tests are needed.

Nottingham Trent University developers say their equipment is designed to be used at the scene of a suspected outbreak or taken to a patient.

It will enable them to identify strains lethal to humans far quicker, potentially saving lives, they say.

In Indonesia there has been an 81% death rate among people with the H5N1 strain, but survival chances increase greatly the earlier it is treated.

So far, tens of millions of birds have died or been slaughtered as a result of bird flu in Asia and beyond.

At the moment, the H5N1 strain, while highly infectious among poultry, is not easily passed to humans, and cannot be passed from human to human.

Mutation fear

Scientists fear that a strain of bird flu, possibly H5N1, could eventually mutate and cross the “species barrier”.

It could then gain the ability to pass easily from person to person and perhaps lead to a dangerous global pandemic, they fear.

Once it does manage to infect a human, H5N1 is usually a killer.

In Indonesia, one of the worst-affected countries, 102 people, mostly those in close contact with infected poultry, have fallen ill, with four out of five dying.

One of the problems is that the early symptoms, such as cough and fever, are shared by other, common infections, delaying diagnosis.

Research published in The Lancet medical journal suggested that development of better diagnostic methods, and better ways of looking after patients could improve their chances.

If identified within a few days, H5N1 can be treated using anti-viral drugs and the chances of survival increase significantly.

UK experts have called for a national surveillance programme to detect H5N1 cases in Indonesians.

Saliva test

However, Dr Alan McNally, from Nottingham Trent University, believes his technology could make a difference.

All that is needed is a swab of saliva from a patient’s mouth, and it can detect molecules specific to H5N1 or other bird flu strains.

Dr McNally said: “There’s a large train of thought that one of the best ways of dealing with avian influenza is by detection and containment.

“The ability to detect and type the influenza virus immediately is essential in setting up controls as quickly as possible to minimize the spread of any potential pandemic virus.”

The £2.3m project, which hopes to come up with a version of the machine that can fit within a briefcase, is being funded by the European Union.

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