This combination HIV and syphilis test can be done in a doctor's office and provides results in five minutes. (bioLytical)

New HIV/syphilis test provides quick results

The University of Alberta in western Canada will soon try out a two-in-one test for HIV and syphilis on 1,500 people. If this study proves the test to be effective it could be approved for use in Canada.

The province of Alberta has one of the highest rates of syphilis in Canada. Its health service declared an outbreak last year after 12 stillborn births and 1,753 new cases. Syphilis is a highly contagious, sexually transmitted infection. It can cause genital sores, vision and hearing loss, heart attack and dementia depending on how long it goes untreated. In pregnant women, it is usually passed on to the fetus. That can cause stillbirths or developmental delays. However, once diagnosed, syphilis can be cured with the antibiotic, penicillin.

The syphilis bacterium in a pregnant woman most often infects the fetus. (iStock)

Some patients do not return for follow up

The current test for syphilis must be sent to a lab and may take up to two weeks to yield a result. The new HIV/syphilis test can provide results in five minutes and, if it confirms there is infection, the doctor can start the patient on treatment immediately before they leave the office. 

That would be fantastic because we can prevent the patient from developing further complications and we can also prevent ongoing spread,” said the trial’s principal investigator Ameeta Singh, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Alberta. “Syphilis affects populations who are at times hard to reach—they may be transient, have unstable housing or may have mental health or addictions issues. Because of their unstable social situations, they sometimes don’t return for followup.”

The fast HIV/syphilis test will be tried on 1,500 people in the province of Alberta. (bioLytical)

Both tests will be used to assure accuracy

This test has been approved in other countries. As part of this trial, participants will take the dual test and also the standard laboratory test to confirm the accuracy of the trial tests. Singh is hoping to see 90 per accuracy in the trial test. 

Health protocols in Alberta mean that all pregnant women are supposed to be tested for syphilis, but that does not happen when vulnerable women don’t access prenatal care until delivery. By then it is too late to avoid transmission to the infant.

“What we are hoping with this project is that if we can reach women in field settings and offer testing in the field, we might eventually be able to reach and treat more women who are infected, thus preventing or reducing the harmful effects of syphilis on both the mother and her unborn child,” she said. 

Singh expects the study to take up to 18 months to complete. 

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