Luis Cuevas and colleagues report findings from a multicenter diagnostic clinical trial in tuberculosis, showing that the sensitivity and specificity of a “front-loaded” diagnostic scheme is not inferior to that of a standard diagnostic scheme.
More than 50 million people around the world are investigated for tuberculosis using sputum smear microscopy annually. This process requires repeated visits and patients often drop out.
Methods and Findings
This clinical trial of adults with cough ≥2 wk duration (in Ethiopia, Nepal, Nigeria, and Yemen) compared the sensitivity/specificity of two sputum samples collected “on the spot” during the first visit plus one sputum sample collected the following morning (spot-spot-morning [SSM]) versus the standard spot-morning-spot (SMS) scheme. Analyses were per protocol analysis (PPA) and intention to treat (ITT). A sub-analysis compared just the first two smears of each scheme, spot-spot and spot-morning.
In total, 6,627 patients (3,052 SSM/3,575 SMS) were enrolled; 6,466 had culture and 1,526 were culture-positive. The sensitivity of SSM (ITT, 70.2%, 95% CI 66.5%–73.9%) was non-inferior to the sensitivity of SMS (PPA, 65.9%, 95% CI 62.3%–69.5%). Similarly, the specificity of SSM (ITT, 96.9%, 95% CI 93.2%–99.9%) was non-inferior to the specificity of SMS (ITT, 97.6%, 95% CI 94.0%–99.9%). The sensitivity of spot-spot (ITT, 63.6%, 95% CI 59.7%–67.5%) was also non-inferior to spot-morning (ITT, 64.8%, 95% CI 61.3%–68.3%), as the difference was within the selected −5% non-inferiority limit (difference ITT = 1.4%, 95% CI −3.7% to 6.6%). Patients screened using the SSM scheme were more likely to provide the first two specimens than patients screened with the SMS scheme (98% versus 94.2%, p<0.01). The PPA and ITT analysis resulted in similar results.
The sensitivity and specificity of SSM are non-inferior to those of SMS, with a higher proportion of patients submitting specimens. The scheme identifies most smear-positive patients on the first day of consultation.
Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN53339491
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every year, nearly 10 million people develop tuberculosis—a contagious bacterial infection that usually affects the lungs (pulmonary tuberculosis)—and about 1.7 million people die from the disease. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis, is spread in airborne droplets when people with the disease cough or sneeze. Thus, to control tuberculosis, it is essential that infected individuals are rapidly identified and treated. The “gold standard” diagnostic test for tuberculosis is mycobacterial culture, in which laboratory staff try to grow M. tuberculosis from sputum (mucus brought up from the lungs by coughing). However, although this test is sensitive (it detects most patients with tuberculosis) and has a high specificity (a low rate of false-positive results), it is too slow to produce results and too complex for routine use in the low- and middle-income countries where tuberculosis mainly occurs. In these countries, patients are usually investigated using direct sputum smear microscopy, a cheaper but less sensitive test in which multiple sputum samples treated with the acid-fast Ziehl-Neelsen stain are examined for the presence of M. tuberculosis bacilli.
Why Was This Study Done?
In most national tuberculosis control programs, patients provide an “on the spot” specimen during their initial consultation, a specimen collected at home the next morning, and another on-the-spot specimen when they bring their morning specimen to the clinic (a “spot-morning-spot,” or SMS, collection scheme). Unfortunately, patients often fail to return with their morning sample. Furthermore, the examination of three samples strains the limited laboratory resources of developing countries. Based on several recent reviews, the World Health Organization recently recommended that only two samples need be examined, a policy change that reduces the laboratory workload but does not avoid the problems of collecting a morning sample and patient drop-out during the diagnostic process. In this non-inferiority, cluster randomized trial, the researchers compare the sensitivity and specificity of a spot-spot-morning (SSM; two on-the-spot specimens collected during the first clinic visit an hour apart, and a third specimen collected at home the next morning) scheme for tuberculosis diagnosis with those of the standard SMS scheme. A non-inferiority trial investigates whether an intervention is not worse than a control intervention; a cluster randomized trial randomly assigns groups of patients rather than individual patients to the test and control interventions.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers enrolled 6,627 patients in Ethiopia, Nepal, Nigeria, and Yemen who had had a cough for more than two weeks (a characteristic symptom of tuberculosis). A quarter of the patients had culture-positive tuberculosis. The centers participating in the study were randomly assigned each week for a year to use either the SMS or the SSM sample collection scheme. Compared to mycobacterial culture, the sensitivities of the SSM and SMS schemes were 70.2% and 65.9%, respectively, which indicates that the new scheme was non-inferior to the SMS scheme. Similarly, the specificity of SSM (96.9%) was non-inferior to that of SMS (97.6%). Importantly, the sensitivity of diagnosis using just the first two samples collected in the SSM scheme was also non-inferior to the sensitivity of diagnosis using the first two samples collected in the SMS scheme (63.6% versus 64.8%; the researchers defined non-inferiority of SSM as a difference in its sensitivity compared to that of SMS of less than −5%). Finally, patients tested using the SSM scheme were more likely to provide the first two samples than patients tested using the SMS scheme (98% versus 94.2%).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that a sputum collection scheme in which two samples are collected one hour apart followed by a morning specimen could identify as many smear-positive patients as the standard SMS scheme. Importantly, they also indicate that examination of the first two specimens alone identifies most smear-positive patients independently of which scheme is used. These findings suggest that the SSM scheme might be more suitable for tuberculosis diagnosis than the SMS scheme in locations where patients are likely to drop out of the diagnosis process (for example, in low- and middle-income countries, where patients often live a long way from clinics). However, for an SSM scheme to work effectively, an on-site laboratory with a same-day turn-around service will be essential, and tuberculosis clinics will need to minimize contact between patients waiting to provide their second on-the-spot specimen.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000443.
A related PLoS Medicine Research Article by Cuevas et al. uses LED fluorescence microscopy for the diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis
The World Health Organization provides information on all aspects of tuberculosis, including information on tuberculosis diagnostics and on the recommendation to reduce the number of smears for diagnosis to two; the Stop TB Partnership provides information on global tuberculosis control (some information in several languages)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information about tuberculosis, including information on the diagnosis of tuberculosis disease
The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases also has detailed information on all aspects of tuberculosis
MedlinePlus has links to further information about tuberculosis (in English and Spanish)
A new Web site dedicated to the discussion and optimization of smear microscopy has recently been launched