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June 8, 2015

Doctors need cheaper, faster ways to detect Ebola virus

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Scientists are racing to find a way to quickly diagnose patients with Ebola, the virus that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa during a recent outbreak.

A newly-developed kit would enable health workers in the field to test themselves for several diseases by analyzing the reaction of antibodies. Those kits cost only $5 and could be a gateway to quicker Ebola diagnoses, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Lee Gehrke, whose team developed the test.

In Sierra Leone, people who have been exposed to Ebola are subject to a 21-day quarantine to see if they develop symptoms of the virus. But this method of diagnosis still leaves family members at risk of exposure during the quarantine.

Researchers have not perfected a better test for Ebola, in part because there is no constant demand for it, Gehrke said.

“It boils down to whether there are markets for these devices because many of these viruses appear as hot spots and then go away. There’s no constant market,” she said.

The tests that do exist are expensive and difficult to replace, making them less practically applicable, according to Gehrke.

The startup Nanobiosym also created a device called Gene-RADAR, which uses genetic testing to detect the presence of the Ebola virus before symptoms appear. But the test is still being developed, and its effectiveness is still unconfirmed.


Warm up questions
  1. How do doctors test people for certain diseases?
  2. What do you know about this year’s Ebola epidemic?
Critical thinking questions
  1. How does a person know if they have Ebola?
  2. Who decides which rapid tests are produced and made available to patients?
  3. How would rapid testing affect health workers treating people with Ebola?
  4. Who were some of the health workers interviewed for this story? What kind of education would prepare you to help fight diseases such as Ebola?
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