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Screen tests

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Preventive tests for everything from food allergies to cancer are becoming more popular thanks to the increased emphasis on health and higher purchasing power.

Baby Priya is just a few weeks old but she has already been tested for anaemia, growth delays, infection, sepsis, bone deformity, mental retardation, poor weight gain, thick sticky mucus in lungs, and even infertility. Her parents opted for Babyshield, a newborn genetic screening test for 118 conditions, because she was born premature and her mother had high blood pressure while she was pregnant.

The growing emphasis on preventive healthcare is pushing the case for screening tests that hold the promise of early diagnosis. Babyshield, launched by Life-Cell International, conducts the test on a few drops of blood taken from the baby's umbilical cord and urine retrieved after the first 48 hours. "Over 2, 000 newborns have been screened since its launch in October and we hope to screen 2, 000 newborns every month in future, " says Mayur Abhaya, CEO, LifeCell International.

These screening tests go beyond the usual annual health check-up packages and sound early alarms for genetic disorders, tuberculosis, thyroid, food allergies, and vitamin deficiencies. Greater awareness about health is pushing their cause but easy access, convenience and higher purchasing power are doing their bit in making screening tests popular. Most of these tests don't need a doctor's prescription.

For instance, if you have just visited an area that has a high incidence of tuberculosis you can get yourself screened for this bacterial infection that affects 40 per cent of India's population. Most of these tests can be done at pathology and diagnostic labs.

Pushpendra Mishra in Delhi got himself tested after he heard someone in his office mention that 90 per cent of Delhiites are deficient in vitamin D. Mishra, who works in a financial firm in Delhi NCR, was diagnosed with the deficiency and prescribed a supplement to be taken with milk, thrice a week. "I used to have stiff fingers and joints when I woke up in the morning and there was always a niggling ache in my right knee. Now, I have got relief, " says the 24-year-old who now makes it a point to soak in some sun every day. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a host of ailments including diabetes. Earlier, such deficiencies went untreated as awareness was low.

"Now people have access to health and medical information and are reading a lot, " says Aneesh Khanna, CEO of mylabyogi. com, an online pathology and diagnostic service.
Food allergy screening tests are also popular. The radioimmunoassay lab at Hinduja hospital offers screening for allergies to 100 food items. SRL Diagnostics conducts intolerance tests for 200 food antigens. According to some reports, food allergies cause roughly 30, 000 emergency treatments and approximately 100 to 200 deaths in India per year.

Spurred by demand for many more tests, both preventive and diagnostic, the diagnostics industry in India is growing at a rate of 20 per cent annually, the fastest in the world. Om Manchanda, CEO, Dr Lal Path Labs, reports a growth of almost 25 per cent in the number of patients who have opted for preventive health tests in the past year. "In Delhi, there has been a rise in the number of customers opting for the vitamin D test. In eastern regions, thyroid screening attracted the largest number of customers, " he says.

A study conducted by P D Hinduja hospital in Mumbai on people who came for regular tests between April 2011 and April 2012 revealed that 25 per cent of the women and 17 per cent of the men had hypothyroidism. "If they had not undertaken the tests, these conditions would have advanced undetected till they became clinically apparent, " says Dr Vimla Puri, who is a consultant at the radioimmunoassay lab at Hinduja hospital.

More serious conditions like diabetes continue to push lakhs to take regular blood sugar tests. Manisha Murthy, a 33-year-old social worker based in Bangalore, is worried that she may develop diabetes as both her parents have it. "It's been three years since I started getting myself screened for diabetes. I want to stay a step ahead, " says Murthy who controls her calorie intake and goes for regular walks.

Cancer is emerging as a serious health challenge. Every year about 5 lakh people die of cancer and the figure is expected to reach 7 lakh by 2015. SRL Diagnostics' Onko-Sure, a pan-diagnostic test, offers screening for 13 types of cancers including lung, colon, rectum, ovary, liver, breast, stomach and pancreas. Launched in late 2011, it is a blood test that measures the levels of fibrin and fibrinogen degradation products (FDP) - cellular breakdown products. Studies have indicated that in people with malignancy, the FDP level is 38 times higher than the healthy limit. The test, which costs Rs 2, 450, has been approved by the FDA.

In the past six months around 2, 000 people have taken this test. "According to some estimates 70 per cent of cancer cases in India are detected at an advanced stage leading to high mortality. Cancer screening can bring down this number, " says Dr B R Das, president, research and innovation at SRL Diagnostics.

But some oncologists say people should not undergo the test without consulting a doctor. "While it holds promise, we cannot recommend it as a routine screening test, " says Dr Devavrat Arya, consultant medical oncology at Fortis hospital, Noida.
And while regular health check-ups are encouraged by doctors, getting yourself needlessly tested for one or the other disease defies good sense. You have to take claims made by labs with a pinch of salt and find out if you really need all those pin pricks. Medical experts and activists are also creating awareness about unscrupulous doctors who needlessly prescribe tests because they earn commissions from the labs.

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