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 Friday, 17 January, 2003, 00:00 GMT
Plague test 'could save lives'
Plague is spread by fleas
A quick diagnostic test for plague has been produced by French scientists.

Antibiotic treatment can make all the difference if plague - still rife in some countries - is spotted swiftly so the test could potentially be a lifesaver.

Bubonic plague - the "Black Death" that swept Europe in the Middle Ages - is still a feared disease in some countries.

The bacteria involved, Yersinia pestis, could also possibly be used as a biological weapon.

Normally, the bug is carried by rats, and then transmitted on to humans by fleas which feed on both.

If you're travelling to a village in Africa where there may be a plague outbreak, then this is what you would take with you

Dr Phil Luton, CAMR
It can be spread from human to human by coughs and sneezes - and if inhaled, the pneumonic form of the illness is far more dangerous.

World Health Organisation estimates claim that 50kg of Y. pestis released in the air over a city of five million inhabitants would cause 36,000 deaths and 150,000 cases of pneumonic plague.

There is currently no vaccine for plague, although several research projects are closing in on one.

Island outbreak

The researchers from the Institut Pasteur developed their test and used it to help tackle an outbreak of hundreds of cases in Madagascar.

Their results are published in The Lancet medical journal on Friday.

The test works by spotting a molecule called F1 - found on the surface of the bacteria.

F1 plays a key role in the spread of the disease because it stops the body's immune system getting to grips with the infection.

Dr Suzanne Chanteau, who is leading the research, said: "We have shown that with this test, the rapid and cost-effective diagnosis of bubonic and pneumonic plague could easily be achieved by health workers in remote sites.

"Use of the test could help to reduce mortality through rapid and efficient treatment of patients, morbidity, and insecticide resistance of fleas."

It was used to confirm 600 cases of plague on Madagascar, with 100% accuracy.

African aid

Dr Phil Luton, from the Centre for Applied Microbiology, a government-funded research centre which looks at biological hazards, said that the test would be most of use in areas still prone to naturally occurring plague.

He told BBC News Online: "If you're travelling to a village in Africa where there may be a plague outbreak, then this is what you would take with you, if it does everything that it claims."

However, he said that existing disease surveillance systems in the UK, where plague cases are normally brought home by tourists, would be likely to pick up an outbreak quickly.

See also:

02 Dec 98 | Health
16 Jan 03 | Americas
15 Jan 03 | N-P
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