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New Tests Promise Rapid and Accurate Detection of Malaria

Rapid diagnostic tests, or RDTs, are becoming an increasingly important method for detecting malaria. Health specialists recommend that they be used along with a range of other strategies for controlling the disease // , including the use of artemisinin-based combination therapies, insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor spraying against malaria-carrying mosquitoes and testing and treatment of pregnant women and children.

The tests are ideal for rural areas are accurate, easy to use and at less than one dollar per test, inexpensive. Prior to RDTs, blood samples had to be sent to labs to be examined under a microscope. Not now. With the prick of a finger, the RDTs can detect in less than 10 minutes the most common and deadly malaria parasite in the tropics, Plasmodum falciparum.

Dr. Trenten Ruebush is a senior malaria advisor at USAID in Washington.

The major reason everyone is interested in RDTs, he adds, "is that [the cost] of the new combination malaria drugs introduced throughout Africa and other countries are 10 to 20 times higher than the former single drug therapies like chloroquine and amodiaquine. It’s critical to have accurate diagnosis to ensure those expensive drugs are being used in those who are infected and do need them. You don’t want to use those expensive drugs in someone who has a fever due to another cause.

But health specialists say some field technicians continue to prescribe expensive anti-malarials despite a negative reading by the RDTs.

Ruebush says, “whether a clinician or health worker in a rural health clinic will pay attention to the results of a microscopic examination of the blood or of an RDT is another matter. It does happen more often than it should that when the results of the diagnostic tests don’t agree with what the health worker believes to be the case, the health worker will often give the treatment anyway. And then, yes, it does defeat the purpose of the tests, but
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