SINGAPORE: Researchers at the National University of Singapore have developed a test kit that could soon allow children to be tested for hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) at home or at their childcare centres - with just their saliva - even before symptoms appear.
The researchers say the test kit allows for faster results, at greater accuracy and a cheaper price.
In collaboration with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), KK Women's and Children's Hospital and Taiwan's Chang Gung University, the test uses salivary microRNA as a diagnostic marker to accurately detect the HFMD virus.
HFMD is spread by contact via the bodily fluids of an infected person. There is currently no approved antiviral drug or vaccine available in Singapore.
The disease sees an outbreak every two to three years, with its last peak seen in 2016 when the number of reported cases hit 42,000.
About 29,000 cases have been reported as of August this year, a number researchers have warned is “alarming”.
The current tests in hospitals - which include throat swabs and blood samples - are invasive and take about six hours for the results to be turned around.
The NUS researchers say the new saliva test kit takes only two hours for results to be turned around, and can be used at childcare centres or at home.
Associate Professor Justin Chu from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, who led the project, said the study was tested on 82 children.
During the trial, the test picked up Singaporean HFMD cases with around 90 per cent accuracy, he added. The accuracy rate was 80 per cent when identifying Taiwanese cases, which Assoc Prof Chu said could be because of genetic differences or slightly different methods of processing the saliva samples.
The team will have to test the kits on a larger group of children and obtain approval from the Health Sciences Authority before use here. Assoc Prof Chu said he is now looking to recruit 1,000 children from China and Vietnam to refine the test further.
"The main objective of this project is to look at how we can use this diagnostic on a daily basis in childcare centres where parents can even use it. That will actually help to enhance the pick-up rate of who's got HFMD and we could help to break the transmission chain of the infection," Assoc Prof Chu said.
The new test is also able to pick up the virus before symptoms, such as fever, mouth ulcers or blisters on the hands or feet, appear.
“(HFMD) can be misdiagnosed as we know that a lot of other viruses can cause similar symptoms ... So there are cases of misdiagnosis. By using this kit, we can enhance the specificity of detection," Assoc Prof Chu said.
The kits, which are expected to cost S$2, are expected to be commercialised within two years.