Detection of gonococcal infection: pros and cons of a rapid test.
WHO estimates that 62 million cases of gonorrhea occur annually worldwide. Untreated infection can cause serious long-term complications, especially in women. In addition, Neisseria gonorrheae infection can facilitate HIV transmission, and babies born to infected mothers are at risk of ocular infection, which can lead to blindness. Where diagnostic facilities are lacking, gonorrhea can be treated syndromically. However, this inevitably leads to over-treatment, especially in women in whom the syndrome of vaginal discharge may be due not to N. gonorrheae infection but to several other more prevalent conditions. Over-treatment is a major concern because of widespread N. gonorrheae antibiotic resistance. Moreover, a high proportion of gonorrhea cases are asymptomatic and so do not present for syndromic management. Such cases will only be detected by screening tests. The gold standard test for the detection of N. gonorrheae is culture, which has high sensitivity and specificity. However, it requires well trained staff and its performance is affected by specimen transport conditions. Other options include microscopy and tests that detect gonococcal antigen or nucleic acid. Nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) have higher sensitivity and can be used on non-invasive samples (urine). However, they can cross-react with other Neisseria species and are expensive, requiring highly trained staff and sophisticated equipment. In settings where patients are asked to return for laboratory results, some infected patients never receive treatment as they fail to return for their test results. This reduction in treatment, and the possible onward transmission of N. gonorrheae during any delay in treatment, means that a rapid test of lower sensitivity may be more effective if it results in patients being treated at the initial visit. Indeed, even with the low sensitivity of currently available rapid tests (50-70%), modeling shows that they can outperform gold standard tests in populations with high sexual activity and/or low return rates. Unfortunately, however, most of the rapid tests currently available are immunoassays that are quite expensive and involve many steps, which limit their current usefulness. In summary, the pros and cons of using a rapid test are dependent on the setting. Culture or NAATs remain the best choice in an ideal setting. However, in settings where laboratory facilities are not available, or in high-risk populations where return rates are low, rapid tests may be the most effective way of diagnosing gonorrhea. Their optimal use in these settings requires the development of simpler and cheaper rapid tests.
Molecular Diagnosis (2005) 9 (4) 175-179.