Ebola has dominated the news the past few months. Considering the recent outbreak in Africa has already killed thousands, and with no functional cure or treatment, it will continue to dominate the news for a while longer. The Ebola virus remains dormant in a host, allowing a victim to go symptom free for weeks making charting the path of the disease an extremely important one while also incredibly difficult. After the person starts having symptoms they get progressively worse before a majority of the sufferers die. What makes Ebola so scary is that, while it is currently contained to parts of Africa, it can spread to other parts of the world relatively easily. To make matters worse, the current ways we test for Ebola are slow, inefficient, and extremely expensive. Luckily there is a company such as PositiveID Corporation that can implement safe, accurate and reliable solutions to the problem of Ebola screening and help make sure this catastrophic disease doesn’t spread.
Currently, some airports in Africa have started screening passengers that arrive from countries that have experienced an Ebola outbreak. Unfortunately, the way they do this is less than effective. A passenger that is determined to have an elevated temperature and deemed feverish will then be subject to a blood test. This initial screening already creates problems. First, the way airport officials determine whether a passenger has a fever is with a very expensive thermal scanner. This thermal scanner is bulky and not a reliable method to detect someone that has an elevated body temperature. In fact, it is the same technology that failed to curb the spread of bird flu in 2009. Since temperature is only elevated after the incubation period of the Ebola virus, even if the machines were one hundred percent reliable, passengers that carry the Ebola virus would still get past undetected since the newly infected will not have a fever. Not to mention that everyone will present or show the symptoms slightly differently. So while one person may have a high fever when infected another may have a much milder initial response. This is just the first of many problems with the current detection methods. After a passenger is deemed to be feverish, the next part of the diagnostic process can start and this will create its own slew of problems.
If a passenger has been proven to have an elevated temperature they will then be subject to a polymerase chain reaction blood test or PCR. This test will detect Ebola Virus antibodies in a person that is carrying the disease. However, giving every passenger with an elevated body temperature a blood test is not only impractical but extremely expensive. Also the test itself needs to be conducted by highly trained medical professionals in a laboratory which will delay the readiness of the results. This can create a logistical nightmare as passengers would need to be quarantined as they await their test results. Also, the availability of the required laboratories can be scarce in Africa and other developing parts of the world. It is clear that in order to stop the spread of Ebola to other parts of Africa and the rest of the world, it is essential to develop and implement better screening and diagnostic practices at airports to prevent the dissemination of infected passengers. The current options are clearly not going to accomplish this huge task. Luckily, a widely respected bio threat diagnostic company seems to have a solution.
PositiveID Corporation is that company. PSID has recently partnered and signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to explore its handheld Firefly Dx handheld diagnostic tools to use with various industries such as the healthcare field and even agricultural fields. PositiveID Corporation has also begun testing its devices in extreme environments for use in various Department of Defense purposes such as detection of biological terrorism. PSID also recently partnered with other contractors working with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency to develop their technology to detect Weapons of Mass destruction.
It clearly is a great thing that such a well-respected company has a potential solution to combat the dissemination of Ebola and that solution is their high tech and innovative Firefly handheld diagnostic tool. The Firefly Dx may solve all of the previously mentioned problems with the current detection of Ebola carriers and implementation of a reliable system for point of need monitoring for the Ebola outbreak. First off, the system is completely portable. It is self-contained in a handheld device so it can come to the passengers rather than having to take a sample at the airport and send the sample to a laboratory. This will cut down on laboratory costs because you don’t need a lab or a reliable shipping method for samples. The portability of the device also makes sure that you don’t waste space in a busy airport with a bulky diagnostic machine. As previously mentioned you won’t need a laboratory or scientists to run the tests. Anyone with minimal training would be able to perform the tests and this can include airport staff with no previous medical training. This will make the system easy to implement, and thus, the firefly Dx could be very effective at the airports that need the system the most.
Secondly, the Firefly is such a sophisticated machine, it doesn’t take any shortcuts and does exactly what a polymerase chain reaction laboratory and scientists would do to a sample. It it designed to perform sample lysis, purification, PCR analysis, and identify nucleic acids of interests, all of which is necessary for detection of a pathogen in a patient. The system is also expected to be able to process urine swabs, saliva swabs, blood swabs, and any other sample that would be needed for diagnostic use. This could make Firefly an excellent tool for not only Ebola detection, but for any other pathogen that poses a similar threat. All in all, once the development is completed, which is anticipated by 2016, Firefly is expected to be a hugely adaptable, cost effective option.
Clearly one of the most impressive features with Firefly Dx is that it is designed to be inexpensive to use and maintain. You would need a fully staffed laboratory to do all the things the Firefly Dx is expected to do. Each unit will be around $3,000 and each disposable cartridge will only cost between $25 to $50. Since the test results will be given in minutes you wouldn’t need to quarantine passengers that were at risk saving $3,000 there alone.
The most important part to remember about the Firefly Dx system is that, once commercialized, smart and successful implementation could save lives and could very well play a large role in eliminating the Ebola threat. For example, say passengers have just arrived from an area of Africa that has had an Ebola outbreak, and instead of testing only a select few patients because of cost and time constraints, the airport could test virtually all the passengers for significantly less money very rapidly. This would then allow the correct medical personnel to adapt quickly to a situation if one of the passengers is ill. Aiding the quick ability to adapt, is the built in wireless Bluetooth inside the Firefly Dx allowing for test results to be shared immediately with the relevant medical staff, which would allow for the best outcome for the patient. All the leading medical experts agree that the only way to eradicate the Ebola threat is to stop its spread which is extremely difficult given the ease of current international travel. The Firefly Dx could be perfect solution to the dissemination problem.
The global Ebola threat is a real one. With the ease of transmission, as well as the ease of international travel, the spread of the disease is a very disturbing possibility. The most effective way to combat it is clearly on site diagnosis and monitoring. The current lengthy and expensive system in place, which has failed before for other diseases, is clearly too unreliable to use over a lengthy period of time. This will no doubt result in the needless loss of life. The expensive, bulky thermal scanners and tedious laboratory processing will create a logistical nightmare of inefficiencies and missed diagnoses resulting in the inevitable spread of the African tragedy. However, with products like Firefly Dx, which is expected to provide a safe and reliable alternative to the current system, stopping the spread of Ebola and other catastrophic disease is something that may one day be achieved. The system should be implemented at the airports receiving any passengers from any of the inflicted areas of Africa so that passengers can be inexpensively screened. This is not only a smart thing to do scientifically as far as making sure the spread of Ebola is eliminated, but also a fiscally responsible option, as the device could replace expensive laboratories and be adapted to the next big threat to worldwide health.
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