All parents want the best care for their children. Accurate diagnosis is an essential first step.
Emerging diagnostic tests bring accurate diagnosis closer to the patient
In Tiahuanaco, Bolivia, Tamaya sells house wares from a kiosk, often with her baby in a sling on her back. The hours are long, but the income helps keep her family fed. Health needs, however, are even harder to meet.
Tiahuanaco has no public health clinic. When Tamaya’s son has a fever or diarrhea, she faces a decision: should she shut down her kiosk and take him on the hours-long journey by bus to reach the clinic in La Paz?
The trip would consume a whole day. The lost income alone, never mind the clinic costs, could mean she and her family will go hungry. At the clinic, the two might wait hours for attention, only to receive a general diagnosis based on her son’s symptoms—and treatment options that even the doctors can’t be sure will help.
When asked what would make the health care system better, Tamaya says she wants answers—tests that can tell her just what her baby has and what will help him get well. But, she adds, “Oigo que no hay nada.” (I hear there is nothing.)
Hold on, Tamaya
There will be something. Inexpensive, portable, easy-to-use diagnostic tests that give fast results can bypass the need for complicated infrastructure that is not available where Tamaya lives. For example, PATH has applied the technology used in home pregnancy tests to make tests for malaria and hepatitis B. They aren’t quite as accurate as laboratory results, but someday, with further refinement, they could be. These tests and other “point-of-care” diagnostics in the development pipeline mean that individuals like Tamaya could avoid a long trip to a regional clinic and a waiting period for results—and instead get testing, rapid results, and the right treatment at a smaller clinic close to home.
PATH is at the forefront of this technology revolution, and now a new collaboration with the University of Washington (UW) will speed up the availability of new diagnostic technologies. PATH and UW are setting up a center to advance point-of-care diagnostics especially for use in low-resource settings.
The diagnostics center
While many commercial and nonprofit groups are working on diagnostic technologies, they are not necessarily doing so with an eye toward the developing world. For example, their efforts often target diseases that mainly concern wealthier countries, or they assume the support of sophisticated laboratories.
The diagnostics center will serve as a focal point for designing, adapting, and refining a range of tests, made from a variety of established and emerging technologies, that could work in Tamaya’s town. In particular, PATH and the UW will:
- Continue our research on the clinical needs, to direct development of diagnostic tests for low-resource settings.
- Offer a rigorous training program to researchers developing diagnostic tests on diseases of global importance and existing diagnostic tests.
- Fund research groups and private-sector companies to develop promising technologies.
- Validate promising technologies in the lab and follow up, when appropriate, with field testing in low-resource settings.
Like all parents, Tamaya just wants the best care for her son, as soon as possible and before it’s too late. New point-of-care diagnostic tests, as they become available, are an essential first step.
Photo: PATH/Mike Wang.