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Pneumonia finger clip and better diagnostic tests could save thousands of lives

Staff writer |
Investing in simple diagnostic tests could save lives and end disease epidemics in the developing world, say researchers in Nature.

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One of the studies found that wider use of a device that clips onto the finger to measure oxygen in the blood could prevent 148,000 pneumonia deaths in the under-fives, in countries where the disease is most prominent.

Routinely used in hospitals, pulse oximetry is a non-invasive technology that measures oxygen in the blood, and can help doctors diagnose conditions such as pneumonia which trigger low oxygen levels.

The pulse oximeter device - which is around the size of a large mobile phone and can be battery-operated- is not routinely available in community settings. Instead, healthcare workers diagnose pneumonia by techniques such as counting the number of breaths per minute, and observing whether a child is sucking their chest under the rib cage, which suggests they are struggling to breathe.

The authors argue that if pulse oximetry was made more widely available in the community, it could allow children to be diagnosed quicker and sent to hospital for life-saving oxygen and antibiotics. However the authors caution their results depend on a child having reasonable access to a nearby hospital or medical facilities.

"This is a very simple tool that could have a very big impact," says Professor Azra Ghani, senior author of the paper and Director of the Diagnostics Modelling Consortium.

The new research, published today in a supplement in the journal Nature and coordinated by The Diagnostics Modelling Consortium, was led by scientists at Imperial College London who used mathematical modelling to predict the impact of new diagnostic tools across a range of infectious diseases that affect developing world countries.

In the supplement, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the researchers also call for investment in diagnostic tools to detect those that are infected but may not show any symptoms of disease.

For example, current diagnostic tests for malaria involve just a blood finger-prick and can therefore be used to identify those carrying the malaria parasite. The researchers show, however, that they currently only identify around half of those that are infected and may go on to infect others.

A relatively simple improvement in these tests to detect a 10-fold lower density of parasites in the blood could increase this to over 80%. This would increase the chance that the disease could be eliminated and also reduce the number of years that it takes to eliminate malaria.

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