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A potential new test for diagnosing bacterial meningitis

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    Abigail Ringer considers recent reports that an international team of scientists have made a breakthrough discovery that could save children’s lives by enabling bacterial meningitis to be diagnosed and treated more quickly.

    By Abigail Ringer

I have been reading with great interest recently about a potential scientific breakthrough which could lead to the quick diagnosis and effective treatment of bacterial meningitis.

At the moment, when a child is suffering from symptoms of an infection, it is difficult to determine whether the infection is caused by a virus or from bacteria. Only bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. Whilst most infections are caused by viruses, those caused by bacteria tend to be much more deadly, such as bacterial meningitis.

What is bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the fluid and the membranes that surround the brain and the spinal cord. Both the bacteria itself and the body’s efforts to eliminate the bacteria can lead to brain damage or death.

Children who have suffered from meningitis may experience different types of brain damage depending on which areas of the brain are most affected. This may result in hearing loss, epilepsy and developmental delay.

How is bacterial meningitis diagnosed and treated?

Bacterial meningitis requires prompt treatment with antibiotics but when a child has symptoms of the infection, bacterial meningitis can only be confirmed by taking a sample of spinal fluid and waiting 48 hours to see whether bacteria grows in it. In the meantime, the symptoms may be mistakenly thought to be caused by a viral infection and treatment may be delayed.

The scientists, led by Professor Levin of Imperial College London, have now identified two different genes which are only turned on in the presence of bacterial infections. It is hoped that this discovery will lead to the development of a simple blood test which will determine whether an infection is bacterial in just two hours. This will enable bacterial infections such as bacterial meningitis to be treated with antibiotics much more quickly and effectively.  It will also hopefully avoid those suffering with viral infections from being given unnecessary antibiotics.

Professor Levin described the benefits of the discovery: “Every year many children are sent away from emergency departments or doctors’ surgeries because the medical team thinks they have a viral infection, when in fact they are suffering from life-threatening bacterial infections – which are often only diagnosed too late”.

Response of leading charities

Vinny Smith, of the Meningitis Research Foundation responded to the research: “This latest development is very exciting. Bacterial meningitis can kill in hours, and can leave survivors with life-changing after effects. Giving health professionals the tools to rapidly determine whether an infection is bacterial or viral will enable faster detection and treatment.”

Our experience

As part of a team of lawyers working with families of children who have been affected by bacterial meningitis, particularly when the infection has been caught late, I am delighted by this recent scientific discovery and will follow developments in relation to this research and the plans for a new blood test with interest.

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