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Monday, January 22, 2007

Ahem--The Epidemic that Wasn’t: A lab error

Hospital staff were coughing and couldn’t stop. If it was whooping cough, it would have to be contained immediately. So 1,000 healthcare workers received a preliminary test, and were furloughed from work until the results came back. More than 100 heard that they had the disease. Thousands received antibiotics and a vaccine. Eight months later, they all learned it was a false alarm: no one had been infected.

Infectious disease experts at the highly respected medical center now know that a quick and highly sensitive test misled them. A slower, much more certain test showed the error—long after the fact.

A lesson for laymen: a positive test that claims someone has a disease can be wrong, and is wrong a certain fraction of the time. And a test that says someone does not have a disease can be wrong, and indeed is known to be wrong, a certain fraction of the time. Trust, but verify. See our story of an apparent negative result that wasn’t.

Source: Gina Kolata, “Faith in Quick Test Leads to Epidemic that Wasn’t,” NY Times, Jan. 22, page A1 & A17.

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