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Israeli scientists have developed a saliva-based test to detect the hepatitis C virus, and say it could be appropriate for mass screening programmes in developing countries.

Hepatitis C is common in the developing world, but the conventional method of detecting the virus in a blood sample is often inaccessible to poorer nations.

Current tests use a sample of the patient's serum, the liquid part of blood in which blood cells are suspended, and detect antibodies that the body produces in reaction to the virus.

But such tests are costly, complicated and rely on an array of medical equipment and skilled personnel.

Now researchers led by Arieh Yaari of Soroka University Medical Center, Israel, have shown that saliva can be used instead of serum to detect the virus.

They carried out their study on 37 dialysis patients, people without kidney function whose blood must be passed through a machine to filter out waste products.

Such patients have a high incidence of hepatitis C and may resemble ill people in developing countries in their immune response levels.

Yaari and colleagues report 100 per cent success at detecting hepatitis C in the saliva of patients who had symptoms of the disease. This is comparable to the results of testing serum.  

In patients who had the virus but had yet to develop symptoms, the saliva test was accurate in 94 per cent of cases, while the conventional serum test detected only 63 per cent of infections.

Yaari’s team say that as it is cheap and easy to obtain saliva samples, detecting hepatitis C infections using this technique might be economically and clinically important in developing nations.

They add that as the research involved only 37 patients, a larger study is needed to confirm the results. This could focus on a different high-risk population, for example people in developing countries, say the researchers.

They published their findings online on Monday (19 December) in the Journal of Virological Methods.

Link to Abstract of the paper in Journal of Virological Methods

Reference: Journal of Virological Methods doi: 10.1016/j.viromet.2005.09.009

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