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Testing for swine flu not easy

Testing whether a person has swine flu (H1N1) is not easy and it can take days to confirm that suspected cases are actually caused by the virus.

Testing for swine flu not easy

According to health experts, testing whether a person has swine flu (H1N1) is not easy and it can take days to confirm that suspected cases are actually caused by the virus. The World Health Organisation has confirmed 79 cases spreading from Mexico - where it has reportedly killed up to 149 people - into the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Europe, raising fears of a pandemic. But officials suspect more than 1,600 people may have the infection - a disparity explained in part because there is no quick test, according to virologists at the University of Warwick in Britain. While testing for seasonal flu is relatively simple, doing the same for H1N1 is far more complicated and none of the techniques are widely available. One way to confirm swine flu is with a test that involves growing a virus culture in a lab and then sequencing its genetic material. Testing for an increase in antibodies and another technique called real-time PCR (polymerase chain reaction) are the other diagnostic approaches. The PCR technique amplifies copies of genes so researchers can easily compare a sample taken from a sick person to the genetic material of the potentially pandemic infection. With the sample may contain a small number of copies of the virus genes and the technique multiplies them in a test tube to give millions of copies of the virus genes, which are easy to detect. The first step for doctors and health officials is often collecting a sample at a local clinic or hospital and sending it to a better-equipped lab for analysis. This can produce some of the biggest delays. Next researchers must purify the sample to get rid of natural compounds that may interfere with a reading - something that also takes time. Once you know the genetic makeup of the virus, it can be found whether the (genetic) sequence is that of the suspected infection. If everything was optimised and there were plenty of people around to handle the result one could easily get a result the same day. The PCR can within a few hours compare the genetic makeup of the virus in the sample with that of the pandemic virus. But the biggest challenge for researchers is designing a rapid test that health officials can use in the field.
Reuters Health
April 2009
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