The new test is initially only available in Brazil, where it was given the go-ahead by the country’s drug-regulatory agency at the start of this year. After millions of dollars of investment in research by the American Leprosy Missions and the Infectious Disease Research Institute, it will be manufactured by a Brazilian company for a price of less than 1 dollar per test.
The new diagnostic tool is quick and simple, needing only a drop of blood from a finger. This is combined with a couple of drops of a developing reagent. Like a pregnancy test, two lines show on a reactive strip when a person is infected with leprosy.
A quick diagnosis is vital for those infected. If the disease is left untreated, sufferers can develop nerve damage and life-long disabilities. With the new test, a diagnosis can be made up to a year before any symptoms appear. This means that sufferers can be identified early and given multi-drug therapy. With a six or twelve-month course of treatment, leprosy is completely curable.
This is an exciting development for Brazil. The country has around 30,000 new cases of leprosy each year, many occurring in the poorest and most remote areas. Since the disease is widespread across the country and previously quite hard to diagnose, it is responsible for leaving many Brazilians physically damaged. Speaking to the BBC, one Brazilian man who caught leprosy when he was 16 and was left with permanent damage, said he felt like “his life was over” and tried to commit suicide, before being shown how to treat and live with the effects.
Health experts are calling the new test a “real revolution” and are now looking forward to seeing what impact it has on two of the worst-affected parts of Brazil. If results are positive, it is hoped the test kit, which is half the size of a credit card, can be used elsewhere to help the quarter of a million people infected annually worldwide.
The need for a tool to aid quick diagnosis is particularly great in India, which has over half the world’s cases of leprosy. Here, more than one in ten new leprosy infections are diagnosed among children; over 12,000 youngsters catch the disease each year in India, where leprosy still carries a great stigma. And with numbers of new cases apparently rising in some Indian states, the introduction of a faster and easier test cannot come too soon.