13/06/2012 05:17 BST | Updated 12/08/2012 06:12 BST

Dying for the Lack of a Simple Test

Each year, millions of people die simply because doctors and nurses lack the tools to diagnose their illness, or are misdiagnosed because of poor quality tests.

Today, I'm speaking at the Pacific Health Summit on the importance of harmonising the regulation of diagnostic tests. Having worked in diagnostics for over 20 years, it's frustrating to see people dying for the lack of a simple diagnostic test when tests such as those for HIV have revolutionised our approach to healthcare.

Accurate, appropriate and affordable diagnostic tests are critical to public health and are instrumental in preventing and controlling infectious diseases. Yet in a number of countries where they are needed most, these tests are often sold and used without any formal evaluation of their performance and effectiveness. Harmonisation of the regulation process would provide an important level playing field in the use of diagnostic tests around the world. This would ensure faster access to safe, effective and cheaper products such as the new point-of-care tests which can be administered almost anywhere and can greatly improve care for those without access to laboratories.

Working with a team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, I recently carried out a research study, published yesterday. This study sought to determine the feasibility of introducing these point-of-care-tests for pre-natal syphilis screening into a range of settings from urban areas in China and Peru, to remote villages in East Africa, and even more remote indigenous populations deep in the Amazon rain forest.

Being able to deliver treatment straight away is vital in many communities, where women have to walk long distances to get tested. By using this new rapid test, we were able to test the women in a range of settings and have a result in just 15 minutes. The mums could be treated with a dose of penicillin there and then, at the cost of less than £1 per women screened - one of the most cost-effective health interventions available. If all pregnant women were screened in this way, all syphilis related stillbirths and neonatal deaths could be avoided. By working closely with each of the governments prior to and during the research, we have been able to bring about rapid changes in policy - as a result of the study's findings, all six of the participating countries have already introduced syphilis screening using point-of-care-tests. This is a tremendous result, which will translate into many lives being saved.

On the back of this research, the Global Congenital Syphilis Partnership was launched in March. The partnership seeks to build on the success of the project by expanding strategic partnerships, strengthening global advocacy and supporting implementation in-country. Members of the group include London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Save the Children, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, University College London, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.