Rapid Syphilis Tests Could Save Many Children and Mothers

By Chelsea Whyte on June 13, 2012 8:55 PM EDT

Pregnant belly
Pregnant women all over the world may have fewer stillbirths due to a quick and easy syphilis test. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Syphilis in pregnancy causes more than half a million stillbirths or neonatal deaths every year, but these deaths could be prevented if pregnant women were screened for syphilis and treated with a single dose of penicillin before the final three months of their pregnancy.

This knowledge led researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to design a prenatal syphilis screening project they introduced in six countries by training health care officials to deliver point-of-care tests - those that don't require electricity, labs, or highly trained medical staff. Their results are published in PLoS Medicine.

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"Policies for screening pregnant mothers for syphilis have been in place in most countries for years, yet over 70% of pregnant women with syphilis are not screened," said study author David Mabey, according to Scientist Live. "This is, in part, due to logistical challenges with current testing methods, which require electricity, refrigeration and laboratory equipment."

The program screened 100,000 women in China, Brazil, Tanzania, Uganda, Peru and Zambia, with 90 percent of those women being treated on the same day. As a result of this project, all six countries changed policy to adopt point-of-care syphilis testing into their prenatal screening programs.

"This project has shown that [point-of-care tests] for syphilis can be effectively introduced in a range of settings, from cities in China and Peru, to remote villages in East Africa, and even more remote indigenous populations in the Amazon rain forest. By working with the existing health care system to integrate testing, the introduction of [point-of-care tests] resulted in large numbers of women being tested and treated for syphilis, averting many stillbirths and reducing neonatal mortality," study authors said.

Rosanna Peeling, who helped carry out the research, wrote on the Huffington Post today, "Being able to deliver treatment straight away is vital in many communities, where women have to walk long distances to get tested. By using this new rapid test, we were able to test the women in a range of settings and have a result in just 15 minutes."

Women who tested positive were given a treatment at the same time as testing. Not only are these tests convenient, they're inexpensive to administer at a cost of just $1.55 per woman screened.

The researchers say their long-term vision includes the addition of other tests, for anemia and pre-eclampsia - to join the syphilis test as a package that can be easily distributed to expectant mothers worldwide. 

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