A rapid new test for meningitis, which affects approximately 3200 people in the UK every year, could save lives as it cuts time required for diagnosis from several days down to a matter of hours.
Given that meningitis - an infection of the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord - can be very serious if not treated quickly, speed is of the essence when patients are presenting with possible symptoms.
The current ‘gold standard’ test provided on the NHS requires doctors to obtain blood samples that are sent away for testing and can take up to 48 hours to be analysed.
In the meantime, medics are required to make a diagnosis and a decision about prescribing antibiotics based on clinical observation alone.
“Diagnosis of meningococcal disease relies on recognition of clinical signs and symptoms that are notoriously non-specific, variable, and often absent in the early stages of disease,” explained the study.
Not only does this methodology mean some patients are left in danger - Queen’s University, Belfast, estimate that 50% of patients who have meningococcal disease have been reassured in the previous 12-24 hours that they could return home - it also means doctors are treating patients who aren’t ill.
But the new ‘Lamp’ (Loop Mediated Isothermal Amplification) test, currently being piloted at the A&E Department of Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, could tell them in as little as 60 minutes.
The test looks at the contents of blood, spinal fluid or nasal swab samples.
And in the clinical trials it was accurate 89.9% of the time, with a median test time of 1 hour and 26 minutes.
“The test saves lives as well as saving precious time for hospital staff, so the next stage is that this test is made readily available to clinicians,” says lead researcher Dr James McKenna.