Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. In 10% of cases, infection progressive to an active disease which has symptoms such as chest pain and weight loss. TB also causes a long-lasting cough – and can cause you to cough up blood.
One person dies from TB every 22 seconds. In 2019 alone, 1.4 million people died from TB. It is therefore a global issue, prompting scientists around the world to find ways of tackling the disease. A lot of this work has been done in Africa. For example, researchers from the University of Pretoria in South Africa have collaborated with researchers in the UK to design a technique that can detect TB faster than the techniques we currently have. It is hoped that by detecting it earlier, treatments will be more effective and thus, reduce deaths from TB worldwide.
How is Tuberculosis usually diagnosed?
Currently, the best way to diagnose TB in a patient is by testing samples from patients, such as sputum that they cough up.. The sputum is taken to a laboratory and after some time if TB bacteria are present they can be seen with a microscope.
This is a very accurate way to diagnose TB – but it is slow. Results can take several months.
The communities most affected by tuberculosis are likely to have limited access to healthcare, including laboratories for diagnosing TB. There is a need for faster, low-cost ways to detect TB – so that people can get treatment and not spread the disease to others.
Culosis transmission and has prompted researchers to devise a more accessible diagnostic tool. A great example comes from researchers at the University of Pretoria who have designed a low-cost face mask that is able to detect TB after 30 minutes of use!
How can a face mask detect Tuberculosis?
The facemask’s design is simple. It consists of a typical facemask with a 3D-printed insert in its lining. The patient wears the facemask for at least 30 minutes. As they breathe out, their droplets will land on the insert which can then be rapidly analysed to test for bacterial DNA. This analysis generally takes an hour or less!
Recent research has found that this method is very effective. The mask was first tested alongside the sputum on 20 South African patients. At the beginning of the trial, the sputum test did not initially detect TB in some patients and only gave a positive test 6 weeks after the trial. The mask, on the other hand, gave a rapid and more accurate diagnosis. This trial highlighted the face mask’s ability to detect TB faster and earlier than existing techniques.
Currently, the face mask is undergoing larger scale studies based in communities, rather than experimental settings, to make sure it works well in the real world. Hopefully in the future, this technology can be used to make TB diagnosis more accessible to vulnerable communities.