Dr Limenako Matsoso is a medical scientist at the National TB Reference Laboratory under the National Health Laboratory Service. She says the new MDR TB diagnostic tool works much better because ‘instead of the normal three to six weeks that a conventional test takes, it can diagnose TB in about two to three days”.
Matsoso explains the importance of having this new rapid diagnostic tool in fighting the spread of MDR TB.
‘The sooner we can find out whether the strain that infected the patient is resistant or not the better, because this will impact on the kind of treatment that the patient is given. If a patient is infected with a resistant strain, it means that the treatment regimen needs to be adjusted accordingly. If you continue to treat that patient with the same drugs that they are resistant to, you are increasing their resistance level. At the same time, you are not curing the TB. In the meantime, the strain can be transmitted to other people,’ she said.
It can take up to two months or more to diagnose MDR TB. Patients have to wait for the test results before they can receive the appropriate life-saving drugs. During that time, they can spread the multidrug-resistant disease to others. Some patients die before results are known, especially if they are HIV-infected as well.
Dr Natalie Beylis is an independent pathologist. She also stresses the importance of diagnosing MDR TB early.
‘The sooner you diagnose a patient, the sooner you can start treatment. And treatment obviously makes them better and decreases mortality. But also from the public health point of view, treatment will make that patient less infectious. And then you will be able to stop the spread of MDR TB in the communities,’ she said.
Dr Matsoso says the challenge at the moment is to train more health care workers to be able to use the machine.
‘We need more people to be trained. Fortunately the test that we are using is not difficult to use – even a technician who has been working with TB on the normal basis can be trained to use this test. But we definitely need to train more people to be able to cover a wide population in the country,’ she said.
At least 270 000 people are infected with TB every year in South Africa, according to the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO). Of these, 6000 are multi-drug resistant.