By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A test has been developed that could help diagnose bacterial infections including meningitis in minutes, but it could take several years before a cheap testing device is available to developing countries, scientists said on Wednesday.
The new test could save lives, allow treatment of disease - which is difficult to diagnose - to start much sooner and reduce the risk of life-changing after effects, an international team of researchers led by Imperial College London said.
"We would very much hope this could become something cheap enough to be applied even in resource poor regions," Imperial College Professor Michael Levin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Currently the only test available for meningitis, whose symptoms include a high fever, headaches and vomiting, is expensive and takes more than 48 hours, Levin said.
A study led by the pediatrician shows that bacterial infections can be distinguished from other causes of fever.
The research revealed that two genes in white blood cells become active only in case of bacterial infections, according to the study published in the JAMA medical journal.
Researchers said a cheap pin-prick blood test able to accurately identify bacterial infections in less than one hour could be developed within five years.
"If this works... (we) could have an accurate test in situations such as in sub-Saharan Africa where there are epidemics of meningitis and accurate testing using the current methodologies is really difficult," study co-author Dr Jethro Herberg said.
Meningitis is common across Africa's so-called "meningitis belt" from Senegal to Ethiopia. An outbreak of meningitis killed at least 90 people in Niger this year, according to medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
A 2009 outbreak caused more than 80,000 cases, while some 20,000 people died in another epidemic, in 1996–1997.
Meningitis, which is prevalent in children and elderly people, can be treated with antibiotics, but 10 percent to 15 percent of patients die and up to 19 percent of survivors have long-term disabilities, including brain damage and limb amputations.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)