New meningitis test spares children pain

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Health Editor

Scientists at Surrey University are developing a test for meningitis which will allow earlier diagnosis and reduce the need for painful lumbar punctures, especially in children.

The test, which detects tiny amounts of bacterial DNA in the blood, will also enable doctors to gauge more accurately the true number of cases of meningococcal meningitis.

There were 954 cases of meningococcal meningitis, the most common bacterial form of the disease, in England and Wales last year. However, microbiologists believe there are hundreds of unrecognised cases. Dr Keith Cartwright, director of the Public Health Laboratory Service South West, said it was possible there were up to 3,000 cases annually.

"We are in a pre-vaccination era for meningococcal disease. A vaccination for serotype C strain, which accounts for 30 per cent of cases, should be available within 18 months to two years. And we should have a vaccine for serotype B, which accounts for the other 70 per cent. It is important to know exactly how many cases we are dealing with to determine the impact of such vaccines."

Dr Cartwright said the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, whose development has been funded by the National Meningitis Trust, costs about pounds 20 and should eventually become routine in hospitals.

"If a clinician is in two minds about the disease and trying to decide whether or not to carry out a lumbar puncture [insertion of a hollow needle into the spinal cord to withdraw cerebrospinal fluid for diagnostic analysis], the existence of the test may sway the decision against it," Dr Cartwright said.

The PCR test will also be vital when there is an outbreak of cases of meningitis in a particular area. Using a DNA sequencer, it will be possible to detect whether bacteria from different people are linked.