Communicable diseases are a serious public health threat, not least because epidemics can be difficult to predict. For example, as the 2009/2010 H1N1 flu pandemic illustrated, mutations in the influenza virus can turn annual flu outbreaks into global health threats.
The viruses and bacteria that cause these infections can travel beyond borders – and across oceans – ensuring that major outbreaks of communicable diseases are a shared public health challenge.
Diseases such as tuberculosis (TB), once thought to have been in decline in Europe can make an unwelcome comeback, and less common viral infections such as Ebola have the potential to spark worldwide concern when infection rates suddenly surge.
In addition, the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance, which has arisen from the misuse of antimicrobials over several decades, highlights the importance of accurate diagnosis of infection and smart use of medicines.
In vitro diagnostics (IVDs) are tests conducted on blood, urine, stools or tissue samples that provide information used to diagnose medical conditions. During epidemics of communicable disease, the availability of IVDs and laboratory services is crucial to detecting – and containing – outbreaks.
How technology helps
Identifying infected individuals is essential to providing prompt treatment and to stopping the spread of disease. This is where vitro diagnostics (IVDs) come in. Swift and accurate tests can improve survival rates for infected individuals and reduce the duration of illness, as well as protecting public health.
From an economic perspective, efficient use of healthcare resources is paramount. It is essential to treat the right disease first time, every time. The indirect costs of communicable diseases can also be reduced through efficient diagnosis and cure, helping people to return to normal life without delay.
Knowledge is power. When it comes to treating diseases it is essential to know what is causing the illness. Take multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), for example. If a patient has MDR-TB, their doctor needs to know which bacterium is making their patient sick so that the antibiotic they can prescribe the right antibiotic.
Not only could prescribing the wrong antibiotic prolong the patient’s illness, it may even make matters worse by leading to further antibiotic resistance. It is also an inefficient use of resources.
‘A high-quality laboratory system that uses modern diagnostics is a prerequisite for the early, rapid and accurate detection of TB and drug resistance’
– World Health Organization
The need for speed
We do not know where or when the next communicable disease crisis will come from – all we know is that it will come.
When new infections or uncommon diseases spread, developing a test is an essential element of the disease control response. When the number of Ebola cases in West Africa grew, the WHO stressed the need for access to diagnostic laboratories to boost detection.
Ebola also highlighted the need to incentivise the development of rapid diagnostics, as well as building the capacity to ensure that these can be rapidly deployed in the case of major outbreaks. It is essential to develop laboratory infrastructure – including human resources – capable of handling dangerous pathogens.
Preparing for the future
IVDs have come a long way in a short time, and research and development continues to improve the performance and availability of these crucial technologies.
Modern lab tests are embracing molecular biology techniques which can make diagnostics faster. For example, the power of data analytics can be harnessed to compare the DNA of infection-causing bacteria with genetic libraries to help identify rare strains of disease.
Point-of-care testing also promises to make IVDs more accessible, particularly in low-resource countries where communicable diseases are a significant burden.
The IVD industry will continue to invest in developing technologies that can help to prepare for health emergencies and minimise their impact when they occur.