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New HIV test seen as possible breakthrough

CHICAGO--In HIV-plagued Sub-Saharan Africa, it can take up to three months for mothers to learn whether their babies have been infected by the deadly virus, delaying what could be life-sustaining treatment.

Many of the far-flung and rudimentary public health clinics aren't equipped with basic services such as reliable electricity and refrigeration, let alone the sophisticated laboratories required to process HIV tests for infants.

As a result, tests must be sent off to a lab. Because of that delay, even among women willing to walk miles to get their infants tested, more than half never receive the results.

A team at Northwestern University say they are on the verge of addressing the problem. On Friday, they planned to unveil a new HIV test for infants of mothers who have tested positive for the virus, which promises to produce a result in less than an hour at a palatable cost.

The researchers say the product could be a breakthrough for early diagnosis and treatment of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 22.5 million live with the virus, representing more than two thirds of the global total, according to 2009 figures from UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.

Infants diagnosed early can be placed on anti-retroviral drugs that help them manage the disease for decades. More than half of those who aren't treated die within two years, according to the U.N. data.

Designed by David Kelso, a Northwestern biomedical engineering professor, with the help of Abbott Laboratories, Quidel Corp. and others, the new medical device is targeted specifically for testing infants in rural Africa.

Snap tests for HIV in adults are widely available in Africa because there's a huge market for them. But they don't work on infants because they measure antibodies, a protein the body produces in response to infection. Because the vast majority of infants in Africa are breast-fed, nearly all of them receive the antibodies from their mothers and test positive for HIV.

But that doesn't mean they have the virus itself.

Existing tests for infants in the developed world rely on expensive and sophisticated equipment.

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