Rapid diagnostic tests for visceral leishmaniasis

Visceral leishmaniasis (or kala-azar) is caused by a parasite, results in fever, a large spleen and other health problems, occuring in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, east Africa, the Mediterranean region and Brazil. Without treatment people die, and proper treatment can result in cure, so diagnosis is important. Many of the tests that are used to determine if a person has visceral leishmaniasis are complicated, costly, painful and sometimes dangerous for the patients. Now rapid diagnostic tests that are safe and easy to perform are available.

This Cochrane review describes how accurate these rapid diagnostic tests are for diagnosing visceral leishmaniasis. We summarize those studies that evaluated the rapid tests in people who, according to their physicians, could have the disease. We only included studies in which the researchers had used established methods to distinguish the people with visceral leishmaniasis from those who did not have the disease.

We found 24 studies, which contained information about five different rapid tests. A total of 4271 people participated in these studies. One of the rapid tests (called the rK39 immunochromatographic test) gave correct, positive results in 92% of the people with visceral leishmaniasis and it gave correct, negative results in 92% of the people who did not have the disease. This test worked better in India and Nepal than in east Africa. In India and Nepal, it gave correct, positive results in 97% of the people with the disease. In east Africa, it gave correct, positive results in only 85% of the people with the disease.

A second rapid test (called latex agglutination test) gave correct, positive results in 64% of the people with the disease and it gave correct, negative results in 93% of the people without the disease. For the other rapid tests evaluated, there are too few studies to know how accurate they are.

Authors' conclusions: 

The rK39 ICT shows high sensitivity and specificity for the diagnosis of visceral leishmaniasis in patients with febrile splenomegaly and no previous history of the disease, but the sensitivity is notably lower in east Africa than in the Indian subcontinent. Other rapid tests lack accuracy, validation, or both.

Read the full abstract...

The diagnosis of visceral leishmaniasis (VL) in patients with fever and a large spleen relies on showing Leishmania parasites in tissue samples and on serological tests. Parasitological techniques are invasive, require sophisticated laboratories, consume time, or lack accuracy. Recently, rapid diagnostic tests that are easy to perform have become available.


To determine the diagnostic accuracy of rapid tests for diagnosing VL in patients with suspected disease presenting at health services in endemic areas.

Search strategy: 

We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, LILACS, CIDG SR, CENTRAL, SCI-expanded, Medion, Arif, CCT, and the WHO trials register on 3 December 2013, without applying language or date limits.

Selection criteria: 

This review includes original, phase III, diagnostic accuracy studies of rapid tests in patients clinically suspected to have VL. As reference standards, we accepted: (1) direct smear or culture of spleen aspirate; (2) composite reference standard based on one or more of the following: parasitology, serology, or response to treatment; and (3) latent class analysis.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data and assessed quality of included studies using the QUADAS-2 tool. Discrepancies were resolved by a third author. We carried out a meta-analysis to estimate sensitivity and specificity of rapid tests, using a bivariate normal model with a complementary log-log link function. We analysed each index test separately. As possible sources of heterogeneity, we explored: geographical area, commercial brand of index test, type of reference standard, disease prevalence, study size, and risk of bias (QUADAS-2). We also undertook a sensitivity analysis to assess the influence of imperfect reference standards.

Main results: 

Twenty-four studies containing information about five index tests (rK39 immunochromatographic test (ICT), KAtex latex agglutination test in urine, FAST agglutination test, rK26 ICT, and rKE16 ICT) recruiting 4271 participants (2605 with VL) were included. We carried out a meta-analysis for the rK39 ICT (including 18 studies; 3622 participants) and the latex agglutination test (six studies; 1374 participants). The results showed considerable heterogeneity. For the rK39 ICT, the overall sensitivity was 91.9% (95% confidence interval (95% CI) 84.8 to 96.5) and the specificity 92.4% (95% CI 85.6 to 96.8). The sensitivity was lower in East Africa (85.3%; 95% CI 74.5 to 93.2) than in the Indian subcontinent (97.0%; 95% CI 90.0 to 99.5). For the latex agglutination test, overall sensitivity was 63.6% (95% CI 40.9 to 85.6) and specificity 92.9% (95% CI 76.7 to 99.2).