EU project develops diagnostic kit to fight infantile diarrhoea in developing countries

September 14, 2006

Brussels, 13 Sep 2006

An EU funded project has come up with a diagnostic kit for the two most severe forms of infantile diarrhoea in the developing world - enteropathogenic E.coli (EPEC) and Shigella. Researchers say the kit could revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of the condition. Diarrhoea is caused by bacterial, viral and parasitic organisms, most of which can be spread by contaminated water and unsanitary living conditions. Diarrhoea is a rare occurrence for most people who live in developed countries where sanitation is widely available, access to safe water is high and personal and domestic hygiene is relatively good.

However, in developing countries the condition is rampant, which is not surprising given that an estimated 1.1 billion people lack access to improved water sources and 2.4 billion have no basic sanitation. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the condition kills around 2.2 million people globally each year, mostly children in developing countries.

The EACH.CHILD project received &#8364 1 million in funding under the international scientific cooperation (INCO) section of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5). Its aim was to investigate diagnostic solutions for two particular bacteria - EPEC, which can cause diarrhoea for up to 14 days, and Shigella, which can lead to dysentery. Together they account for 20 per cent of diarrhoeal cases - primarily affecting children under 5 years in developing countries.

Peter Williams is Professor of Microbiology in the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester, and coordinator of the project. He explains why a new method to identify these bacterial strains was so urgently needed: 'All cases of diarrhoea look the same to start with, and children are usually given oral rehydration therapy, which is cheap and puts back fluids lost by diarrhoea. But disease caused by EPEC and Shigella does not usually respond to oral rehydration therapy. They are much more severe forms of the disease and even if they don't kill they can often inflict irreversible damage that interferes with the child's growth and development.

'Current practice in most Indian clinics is only to test for E. coli and Shigella if the child's symptoms have not responded to oral rehydration therapy by three days. The usual tests then take a further three days, by which time the disease may have progressed to a very serious stage,' said Prof Williams.

Mindful of the need for a rapid response to the infection, researchers in the consortium worked on a method to test for the EPEC and Shigella bacteria so that treatment could immediately be administered to those children who need it.

Not only is this new diagnostic tool developed said to be rapid and robust, the project consortium say that it will also be affordable - a determining factor given that medical interventions that cost more 50 US cents are thought not to be viable in developing countries. The research team say that their tool will also cut treatment costs due to an in-built facility which will determine antibiotic resistance profiles quickly so that the correct antibiotics can be used.

The diagnostic kit is now being piloted in four hospitals in India, and a commercial testing kit is currently in development.

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