Researchers are optimistic a rapid test for Chagas disease will be approved early next year, revolutionizing diagnosis and ensuring earlier treatment for a disease affecting seven million people, mainly in Latin America, a medical charity said.

Chagas, which kills 12,000 people a year, is transmitted by a cockroach-like bug endemic to Latin America that hides in the adobe houses where many of the region’s rural poor live.

Doctors from the charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) say the parasitic disease is difficult to spot, just five percent of those infected have been diagnosed or treated, and no new drugs have been developed for 40 years. “Today a big obstacle to treating people in rural areas is that they often need to travel to a hospital in a city to have a blood test. The diagnosis requires a certain level of expertise and time,” said Dr Martin Cazenave, MSF mission head in Bolivia, which has the highest prevalence of Chagas in the Americas.

Doctors are optimistic that the time taken to diagnose Chagas can be cut to a few minutes from weeks or months now, with no loss of accuracy, as a result of research carried out by MSF and the World Health Organization. “This could revolutionize the diagnostic approach because you can get a confirmation in 15 minutes and you don’t need a specialized lab and technician. Anyone in a rural healthcare clinic can confirm Chagas using rapid tests,” Cazenave told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

Researchers have evaluated 11 rapid tests for Chagas since 2010 and found six were highly effective and reliable, with results published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, MSF said. The six tests are now being assessed on nearly 2,000 people in five Latin American countries as part of the second phase of research, due to be completed by the end of this year. “We have very high hopes that the research will prove the reliability of rapid tests and contribute to increasing the coverage of diagnosis of Chagas,” Laurence Flevaud, MSF’s chief diagnostic advisor and the study coordinator.

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