By Kuah Guan Oo
Pic by Marina Ismail
SERDANG, 1 August (UPM) – A simple test kit invented by a Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) scientist to diagnose whether a person has caught the lethal rat urine disease leptospirosis can save the lives of some 500,000 people in the world who come down with severe cases of the illness every year.
The test kit, LeptoScan2, can detect the presence of the leptospirosis bacteria in the blood of the patient in less than 15 minutes even in the early stages of the disease, unlike the other products in the market which can only provide the results based on the antibodies produced after 7 days or more of the infection.
The new device, similar to those used by diabetes to check their blood sugar, needs a drop of blood from the patient to confirm the presence or absence of the leptospirosis bacteria, said the inventor, Prof Dato’ Dr Abdul Rani Bahaman, 65, a senior lecturer with the Department of Veterinary Pathology and Microbiology of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of UPM.
He told a media conference here today that LeptoScan2 is an improvement over his earlier invention LeptoScan, a rapid DNA-based detection kit for leptospirosis which was unveiled in 2006.
LeptoScan2, when mass-produced, should be affordable if not relatively cheap enough to save the lives of the 500,000 people said by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to come down with severe cases of the disease every year.
According to WHO, the mortality rate is 23% of those 500,000 in the world estimated to be stricken with the disease commonly known as “penyakit kencing tikus” or rat urine disease, every year.
The leptospirosis bacteria are carried by rats, cattle, dogs and pigs and they multiply in the kidneys of these animals before they are excreted through their urine to contaminate the environment.
What is a major cause for concern is that tests on rats by a team of UPM scientists found the rodents in Kuala Lumpur to be infected with the leptospirosis bacteria.
There is also a very high prevalence of the leptospirosis phenomenon in the animals in Malaysia with economic and public health importance because the disease causes abortions, infertility, low milk production and weak calves in the cattle.
The symptoms of the disease are severe fever, muscle pain, conjunctivitis and so on, and it is often misdiagnosed as it is similar to influenza, dengue and malaria.
While it can be treated with antibiotics, the leptospirosis bacteria can only invade the bodies through cuts and abrasions or through the mucous membranes in eyes, nose and mouth.
The bacteria would multiply rapidly during the acute phase of the first 7 days after infection, before body starts to produce antibodies to clear the bacteria in the blood and internal organs.
But before the antibodies come into effect, the patient may suffer and succumb to organ failure.
Prof Rani who hails from Kuala Pilah and had his early education at the elite Malay College in Kuala Kangsar that was patterned after the British Eton College, said the skin is a very effective barrier to the bacteria, while proper attires (shoes and clothing) could be another reason why there was no major outbreak in the rat-infested areas in the city.
From the records, most outbreaks reported in the country involved water activities like fishing, swimming, jungle trekking and floods, the later being the case of the floods in Johore in 2006.
Prof Rani had obtained his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Bangladesh Agricultural University before he returned to become a Veterinary Officer with the Selangor State Veterinary Services in 1971. He joined the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of UPM three years later.
His interest in leptospirosis began when he went to Massey University in New Zealand where he worked on the bacteria for his Master dissertation. He continued his focus on leptospirosis and obtained his PhD degree from UPM in 1988.
In all, he had more than 34 years of research work when he also lectured, wrote many research papers and supervised many post-graduate candidates at the university.
Prof Rani said he worked on his LeptoScan2 with a research grant of RM170, 00 from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) in 2007 with his PhD student, Dr Arivudainambi Seenichamy.
The disease is not new as it was first diagnosed in the Institute of Medical Research of Kuala Lumpur in 1926 following an outbreak in the country.
Since it is a zoonotic disease that is spread from animals, including dogs and cattle, to human, what perturbed Prof Rani was the announcement by the Deputy Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya to the Senate last week that there were 2,262 reported cases of leptospirosis with 22 deaths in the first months of this year.
There 3,695 cases with 48 death last year and 1,976 cases with 69 deaths in 2010.
The recent most notable outbreak was in the Lubuk Yu recreational area in Maran, Pahang, in June 2010 when 83 people went to rescue after one person went missing.
Twenty-two of them came down with leptospirosis and 8 of them succumbed to the disease, leaving Prof Dr Rani to wonder if they could have been saved if they were diagnosed correctly and quickly. – UPM
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