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New test can spot parasitic disease

La Jolla, Calif. -- U.S. researchers say they've developed a test to quickly identify people with river blindness, a parasitic disease afflicting an estimated 37 million people.

Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., say the test could change treatment strategies in areas of the world where river blindness, also known as onchocerciases, is suspected, an institute release said Wednesday.

The vast majority of onchocerciasis infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in rural Nigeria, and to a lesser degree in Yemen and in parts of Central and South America.

Humans acquire the disease when bitten by black flies, which breed near fast moving rivers and harbor the worm Onchocerca volvulus. The worms trigger an immune response that causes acute dermatitis and, if left untreated, tissue destruction that can lead to blindness.

A drug, ivermectin, manufactured by Merck and distributed free in affected areas, effectively kills the larvae in most cases, but must be taken twice yearly over a period of 15 to 20 years -- the life span of the worms.

The Scripps test uses the unique chemical fingerprints that specific cellular processes leave behind to detect the presence of worms and their larvae.

"A sensitive and reproducible diagnostic test for this disease is crucial for the success of worldwide control and elimination programs," said Kim Janda at Scripps Research. "This diagnostic tool could be a game-changer for how the disease will be treated in the future."

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).

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