(BBC) A hospital A&E department in Northern Ireland is to start using a new, rapid test for meningitis that should speed up diagnosis and save lives.
Meningitis can kill in hours yet the current way to positively identify the infection takes about two days.
UK researchers say the new test that the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children will use gives results in under 60 minutes.
This should let doctors treat fast and accurately, rather than “just in case”.
Speedy treatment is vital because the infection can quickly overwhelm the body, and symptoms may not be obvious until it is dangerously advanced.
At the moment, doctors rely on clinical judgement to decide whether antibiotics are urgently needed.
They err on the side of caution, which means some patients are given treatment they don’t need.
However, on rare occasions cases can be missed, which is where a rapid “Lamp” (Loop Mediated Isothermal Amplification) test on blood, spinal fluid or nasal swab samples could help.
Anyone can get meningitis, but it is more common in babies, children and teenagers or young adults.
Amy Davis was 18 when she became severely ill with meningitis. Initially, she thought she just had a simple case of flu.
Hours later, her body was covered head-to-toe in the alarming blotchy purple rash which is a classic – although not always present – sign of meningitis.
Amy, now 25, recalls: “My mum, being an ex-nurse, knew what it was straightaway and called an ambulance.
“It was really scary. I remember looking at my dad and he looked absolutely terrified so I knew something was seriously wrong.”
Amy developed a serious complication called septicaemia or blood poisoning. The damage that this caused meant she needed her left leg amputated below the knee.
- Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord and caused by a number of different pathogens
- Viral meningitis is the most common and least serious type. Bacterial meningitis is rare but can be very serious if not treated
- If you are worried that someone is seriously ill with meningitis, trust your instincts and seek urgent medical help. Don’t wait for a “tell-tale” rash
- There are vaccines that can protect against some forms of meningitis
Treating potential bacterial cases with antibiotics is still the safest approach and doctors at the Royal Belfast Hospital will continue to do this during the two-year pilot.
But they will also use the rapid Lamp test to quickly see if their clinical hunches are right.
Researcher Dr Tom Waterfield from Queen’s University, Belfast, said it could also spot less obvious cases that might otherwise slip through the net.
“With the best will in the world you can still miss cases if a child looks quite well and you think it is viral rather than bacterial.
“The test could also provide reassurance earlier to anxious parents that their sick child is getting the right treatment. Two days is a long time to wait for a confirmed diagnosis.”
Rob Dawson, from the Meningitis Research Foundation, said a simple, rapid diagnostic was 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.”
The work is funded by the Health and Social Care NI Public Health Agency and by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and is being done in collaboration with Queen’s University Belfast, the Paediatric Emergency Research UK & Ireland Network and The Belfast Trust.
Private company Hibergene have patented the Lamp testing equipment that is on loan to the hospital for the study.