Detecting Outbreak Causes Faster with New Technology

By Jim Beasley

In a disease outbreak that threatens the public’s health, time is of the essence.

Thanks to the new FilmArray BioFire system acquired recently by DHEC’s Bureau of Laboratories, identifying the pathogens that cause these outbreaks has been reduced to approximately 90 minutes. Prior to this important acquisition, identification of the causes of disease could take one-to-three days.

BioFire proved its significance when five people fell ill after swimming in a Lowcountry community pool. Using regular testing procedures, the pool’s water sample provided nothing of major concern to DHEC’s investigators. The tests found only extremely low levels of germs, and it appeared the pool would be allowed to reopen.

However, a different type of sample was sent to DHEC’s lab to undergo further testing using the new BioFire system. BioFire identified the microscopic parasite Cryptosporidium, also known as “Crypto,” which can cause severe diarrheal illness. Because of its outer shell, Crypto is able to survive outside the body for long periods of time — and can even survive disinfection by chlorine used in swimming pools.

“This technology not only allows us to get results faster,” explains Dr. Shahiedy Shahied, bureau chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Laboratories, “but it expands the number of pathogens that we can identify. For a gastrointestinal outbreak it allows us to test for an additional seven pathogens, and the respiratory panel allows us to detect seven additional pathogens that we have no other way to detect.”

Dr. Shahied adds that running samples through the BioFire system is more expensive than more commonly used tests but, in this case, it proved its worth. Identification of Crypto enabled health care providers to offer the appropriate treatments for the five swimmers, helping them on their path to recovery more quickly.

Speaking of BioFire, Rachel Radcliffe, director of DHEC’s Surveillance and Outbreak Investigation Section, said, “It is particularly useful when a pathogen is initially unknown during an outbreak investigation because it can provide timely results that allow us to implement appropriate preventive measures and limit disease transmission.”

BioFire enables DHEC’s public health investigators to respond more rapidly to outbreak situations and makes possible a quicker response and containment of the outbreak. As a result, DHEC can identify threats like Crypto more quickly, helping protect you from bugs that can make you sick.

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