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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 December, 2003, 01:43 GMT
'Instant test' for sex disease
Young women
Young women may be unaware they have the disease
Scientists have developed a cheap, instant test that can detect the sexually transmitted infection chlamydia.

The disease affects millions of men and women - but many will have no symptoms.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, who developed the 50p test, say it could be used globally.

Chlamydia can cause women to become infertile, and is the main cause of preventable blindness in newborn babies in developing countries.

It is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, with 92 million new cases recorded by the World Health Organisation in 1999.

In the UK, an estimated 10% of women under 25 attending inner city clinics suffer from chlamydia.

'Easily treated'

Researchers spent five years developing the "Firstburst" test, with 3m funding from the Wellcome Trust, World Health Organization and US National Institutes of Health.

Chlamydia is a major problem in the west as well as the developing world
Dr Helen Lee
University of Cambridge
In the test, a urine or vaginal swab is taken. The 'dipstick' can then show whether a component of the chlamydia bacteria is present.

It takes around 25 minutes to produce a result.

Most alternative tests take swabs from a woman's cervix or a man's urethra. They may be uncomfortable, some are expensive, and in all cases the results take time to come through.

Dr Helen Lee, who led the research, told BBC News Online the new test could be used in the developing world, where people may find it hard to access healthcare, and in developed countries, where up to half those tested do not come back for their results.

She said: "It's important to have a quick, simple -to-use test for chlamydia because seven out of 10 women who contract the disease have no idea they have been infected.

"But once it has been diagnosed it is easily treated with a one-off pill."

She added: "It's vital the test is instant and not expensive. If you're living in a country where you have to walk for several hours or even a day to get to a clinic it's extremely unlikely you would bother to make the return trip a week later to get the result of a check-up.

"Chlamydia is a major problem in the west as well as the developing world. It's a hugely damaging disease that does not discriminate nor respect borders."

Dr Lee has set up a company which will distribute the test, initially in Africa and Asia.

There are currently other tests available for chlamydia.

Dr Lee accepts that the new test is not quite as sensitive as one of the alternatives, the PCR test, which detects DNA samples from chlamydia.

However, PCR is relatively complex to carry out, expensive, and does not produce quick results.

Another alternative, the EIA test, which detects substances produced by the chlamydia bacteria that trigger the immune system or immune system chemicals produced in response, is less complex. However, it is not as sensitive.

'New generation'

Dr Ted Bianco, of the Wellcome Trust, said: "This is a tremendously exciting social investment which has the potential to help millions of people who suffer from this insidious disease.

"This is one of a new generation of rapid tests which can revolutionise diagnostics and aid the timely provision of treatment to those most in need."

Professor Robin Carrell, of the University of Cambridge added: "This outcome is the result of a series of innovations requiring years of work that have now come together to open exciting prospects for the diagnosis of infectious diseases affecting the wellbeing of many people."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said research was currently being undertaken to develop similar rapid tests which will give a high degree of accuracy in about 40 minutes.

The BBC's Vicki Young
"Chlamydia is often called the invisible infection"

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