New test for meningitis could speed up diagnosis and save lives

Clinicians at an A&E department in Northern Ireland are to start using a new test that rapidly detects meningitis, potentially speeding up diagnosis and saving lives.

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Meningitis and Meningococcal disease can cause death within hours, meaning early treatment is vital to prevent the infection quickly overwhelming the body. When treated early enough, infected individuals usually make a good recovery.

However, the disease is difficult to diagnose because initial symptoms resemble those of the common cold. In many cases, the infection is only confirmed once a patient has developed a visible rash, at which point the illness is often dangerously advanced and it is too late for treatment to be effective.

Furthermore, the NHS gold standard (blood culture) currently used to diagnose the infection takes about two days to provide results.  In the absence of a rapid test, doctors act on the side of caution when dealing with suspected cases and administer antibiotic treatment. However, this means that for each case of meningococcal disease, four people are given treatment unnecessarily.

“If we suspect a child may have meningococcal septicaemia, we will administer antibiotic treatment straight away. If we wait a few days for the test results to confirm, it may be too late and we risk losing the child,” explains Mike Shields, Consultant Paediatrician at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

In a two-year study, researchers used the NHS gold standard and the LAMP test to diagnose patients and found that the LAMP test was just as accurate as the standard test. It also returned results within a fraction of the time the standard test did. However, further research is now required to test the practicality of its use in a hospital environment.

Tom Waterfield, who is leading a new research study at Queen’s University in collaboration with the Paediatric Emergency Research UK and Ireland network, says:

We now need the evidence base to confirm whether it is feasible for clinicians to carry out this test as part of their role before an informed decision can be taken. As part of this study, we will evaluate the feasibility of clinicians using the LAMP test in a hospital setting by assessing any potential barriers and ease of use.”

The two-year study will launch in September and be conducted at the A&E department of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

Rob Dawson from the Meningitis Research Foundation, says such as test is long overdue: "There is an urgent need for developments in this area and we look forward to seeing how this test could work in a hospital or healthcare settings."

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.

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