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Scientists have developed a new rapid test for chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease that affects more than 90 million men and women worldwide.

The test — which is cheaper and simpler than currently used methods of diagnosing the disease — could help identify more cases of chlamydia in the developing world, where it is the main cause of preventable blindness in newborn babies.

The disease can also make women infertile or cause them to suffer ectopic pregnancies and abortions. It can be easily treated with a one-off pill, but most of those who contract the disease have no idea that they have been infected.

Known as 'Firstburst', the new test works by analysing urine or a vaginal swab. Results are ready in less than 25 minutes, and the test remains stable at high temperatures and humidity, making it ideal for use in tropical countries. It is also cheap, at US$0.85 per diagnosis.

"It's important to have a quick, simple-to-use test for chlamydia," says Helen Lee from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who led an international team of 13 scientists in a £3-million, five-year project to develop the test.

"If you're living in a country where you have to walk for several hours or even a day to get to a clinic, it's extremely unlikely you would bother to make the return trip a week later to get the result of a check-up."

Lee has set up a California-based company, Diagnostics, to distribute the test in Africa and Asia with a grant of £750,000 from the Wellcome Trust, Britain's leading biomedical research charity. The research was funded with £2 million from the Wellcome Trust, together with support from the World Health Organisation and the US National Institutes of Health.

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