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BackgroundBleach-sedimentation may improve microscopy for diagnosing tuberculosis by sterilising sputum and concentrating Mycobacterium tuberculosis. We studied gravity bleach-sedimentation effects on safety, sensitivity, speed and reliability of smear-microscopy.MethodsThis blinded, controlled study used sputum specimens (n = 72) from tuberculosis patients. Bleach concentrations and exposure times required to sterilise sputum (n = 31) were determined. In the light of these results, the performance of 5 gravity bleach-sedimentation techniques that sterilise sputum specimens (n = 16) were compared. The best-performing of these bleach-sedimentation techniques involved adding 1 volume of 5% bleach to 1 volume of sputum, shaking for 10-minutes, diluting in 8 volumes distilled water and sedimenting overnight before microscopy. This technique was further evaluated by comparing numbers of visible acid-fast bacilli, slide-reading speed and reliability for triplicate smears before versus after bleach-sedimentation of sputum specimens (n = 25). Triplicate smears were made to increase precision and were stained using the Ziehl-Neelsen method.ResultsM. tuberculosis in sputum was successfully sterilised by adding equal volumes of 15% bleach for 1-minute, 6% for 5-minutes or 3% for 20-minutes. Bleach-sedimentation significantly decreased the number of acid-fast bacilli visualised compared with conventional smears (geometric mean of acid-fast bacilli per 100 microscopy fields 166, 95%CI 68-406, versus 346, 95%CI 139-862, respectively; p = 0.02). Bleach-sedimentation diluted paucibacillary specimens less than specimens with higher concentrations of visible acid-fast bacilli (p = 0.02). Smears made from bleach-sedimented sputum were read more rapidly than conventional smears (9.6 versus 11.2 minutes, respectively, p = 0.03). Counting conventional acid-fast bacilli had high reliability (inter-observer agreement, r = 0.991) that was significantly reduced (p = 0.03) by bleach-sedimentation (to r = 0.707) because occasional strongly positive bleach-sedimented smears were misread as negative.ConclusionsGravity bleach-sedimentation improved laboratory safety by sterilising sputum but decreased the concentration of acid-fast bacilli visible on microscopy, especially for sputum specimens containing high concentrations of M. tuberculosis. Bleach-sedimentation allowed examination of more of each specimen in the time available but decreased the inter-observer reliability with which slides were read. Thus bleach-sedimentation effects vary depending upon specimen characteristics and whether microscopy was done for a specified time, or until a specified number of microscopy fields had been read. These findings provide an explanation for the contradictory results of previous studies.

Original publication





BMC infectious diseases

Publication Date





IFHAD: Innovation For Health And Development, London, UK.


Sputum, Humans, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Tuberculosis, Sodium Hypochlorite, Disinfectants, Observer Variation, Microscopy, Specimen Handling, Centrifugation, Bacteriological Techniques, Sensitivity and Specificity, Reproducibility of Results, Disinfection, Time Factors