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Free Content Bleach sedimentation method for increased sensitivity of sputum smear microscopy: does it work?

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SETTING: A non-governmental organisation (NGO) supported tuberculosis control programme in Bangladesh with good smear microscopy.

OBJECTIVE: To verify whether bleach sedimentation method increases the sensitivity of sputum smear microscopy for acid-fast bacilli (AFB), and if so, how.

DESIGN: Duplicate smears from successive routine specimens, peripheral centres examining direct smears, and blind examination of bleach sediment smears at central laboratories.

RESULTS: When all 3287 sputum samples were examined in duplicate and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease cut-off for positivity was applied, more positives were not found by bleach sedimentation. Using the much lower American Thoracic Society (ATS) threshold, the percentage positives rose slightly from 15.5% for direct smear to 16.6% after bleach. The gain was more evident when suspect examinations only were taken into consideration, as bleach missed many positives identified by direct follow-up smear. When patients rather than individual smears were counted, more suspects were detected by bleach (10% gain on average), but with considerable variation between the centres (range 6–16%). To arrive at this gain, the ATS cut-off was used, with corrections for false results. Under routine conditions, however, this threshold is too low in view of possible transfer of AFB.

CONCLUSIONS: Bleach sedimentation can increase the diagnostic yield, but only to a minor extent if all other factors have been optimised already; it is not a panacea. Precautions against false negatives as well as false positives should be taken, and the additional workload is not negligible.

Keywords: Ziehl-Neelsen smear; diagnosis; sensitivity and specificity; stains and staining; tuberculosis

Document Type: Regular Paper

Affiliations: 1: Mycobacteriology Unit, Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerpen, Belgium 2: Damien Foundation Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Publication date: April 1, 2000

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  • The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease publishes articles on all aspects of lung health, including public health-related issues such as training programmes, cost-benefit analysis, legislation, epidemiology, intervention studies and health systems research. The IJTLD is dedicated to the continuing education of physicians and health personnel and the dissemination of information on tuberculosis and lung health world-wide.

    Certain IJTLD articles are selected for translation into French, Spanish, Chinese or Russian. They are available on the Union website

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