Dipstick test for meningitis ‘easy, quick and cheap’

Within minutes, a red line on the dipstick indicates the type of bacteria in the sample Copyright: CBrahic

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A new test to diagnose bacterial meningitis is fast and effective, can be produced for approximately US$1, and does not require any fancy laboratory equipment, not even a refrigerator.

Created by a team in Niger and described in PLoS Medicine yesterday (5 September), the test will soon be produced in a new facility in Niamey.

The ‘meningitis belt’ of sub-Saharan Africa extends from Ethiopia to Senegal and includes 21 countries and 250 million people at risk of the disease. Here two types of bacteria are the major cause of meningitis epidemics that affect over one million people each year.

Being able to determine which type of bacteria is responsible for an epidemic is key to containing it.

The researchers led by Suzanne Chanteau of the Centre of Medical and Sanitary Research (CERMES) in Niamey devised a test that consists of two paper strips that are dipped in samples of a patient’s spinal fluid.

The dipsticks detect the presence of antigens produced by the meningococcal bacteria.

After a few minutes, red lines appear on the dipsticks that show which of four types of bacteria are present in the sample.

The researchers found that their test identified the correct bacteria in over 97 per cent of cases.

Health workers routinely collect spinal fluid when examining someone who is suspected of having meningitis. But the DNA and cell culture tests currently used are more complicated and expensive.

The dipstick also has the considerable advantage of being stable for weeks in hot weather, and works reliably at up to 45 degrees Celsius.

Amina Amidou and Suzanne Chanteau

Chanteau and her colleague Amina Amidou are now overseeing the launch of a small production facility behind CERMES in Niamey.

The facility is financed by Sanofi pasteur. In November it will begin producing 5,000 tests in order to complete their evaluation.

Swapan Jana, secretary of the Society for Social Pharmacology, an India-based non-governmental organisation, says the study is “internationally relevant”.

“An easy, rapid and cost-effective diagnostic test that has the potential to precisely detect [the different types of bacteria] will certainly help improve the global scenario of meningococcal meningitis.”

Link to full paper in PLoS Medicine

Reference: PLoS Medicine 3(9):e337 (2006)