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Face mask TB detection boost

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New approach has the potential to detect millions of missed infections across the world

RESEARCHERS at the universities of Pretoria (UP) and Leicester in the UK are working to revolutionise the way tuberculosis (TB) is detected, through the invention and application of a 3D-printed insert added to simple face masks.

Designed and printed at Leicester University, the inserts reliably catch and retain live tuberculosis bacteria after people who may be infected have worn the adapted mask for just 30 minutes.

This is the first time that exhalation from prospective patients with TB can be captured, with the new approach having the potential to detect millions of currently missed infections across the world.

Unlike a blood test, which cannot differentiate between active and quiescent TB, the masks reduce the need for invasive investigation.

UP and Leicester researchers initially sampled 24 people with confirmed TB over a 24-hour period, which showed that infectious TB was exhaled and spread when patients were asleep – a breakthrough in the understanding of the disease, demonstrating that a cough may not be required to spread the infection.

The trial showed 86.5% of the patients testing positive for TB through the use of the mask, and only 20.5% from sputum – despite all patients being positively tested for TB through sputum at the start, demonstrating the reliability of the mask for achieving consistent results.

In addition, in a further trial of 20 patients with TB symptoms, four patients with negative sputum tested positive with the mask, and the presence of TB was only detected in their sputum six weeks later – demonstrating the accuracy of the test and highlighting the potential for early diagnosis.

UP Division of Infectious Diseases HOD Professor Anton Stoltz said this finding was potentially a universal solution that could also benefit underprivileged communities, who still struggle with accessing health care.

“In South Africa, we speak of the ‘missing millions’. These are the people that have TB but aren’t aware and are not diagnosed. With this new method, we’ll be able to test a lot more people, even those not exhibiting symptoms of the disease, and get them treated early. This way, we’ll be able to save more lives, because early detection saves lives,” Stoltz said.

Said co-researcher Mike Barer, professor of clinical microbiology in the Department of Respiratory Sciences, University of Leicester: “We are really excited about how we can… influence the spread of airborne infection.”

According to the World Health Organisation, 301 000 people in South Africa fell ill with TB, and 64 000 died from it in 2018.

TB newly affects 10 million people worldwide every year.

– Staff Writer