A low cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) white-blood cell count (WBC) has been identified as an independent risk factor for adverse outcome in adults with bacterial meningitis. Whereas a low CSF WBC indicates the presence of sepsis with early meningitis in patients with meningococcal infections, the relation between CSF WBC and outcome in patients with pneumococcal meningitis is not understood.
We examined the relation between CSF WBC, bacteraemia and sepsis in a prospective cohort study that included 352 episodes of pneumococcal meningitis, confirmed by CSF culture, occurring in patients aged >16 years.
CSF WBC was recorded in 320 of 352 episodes (91%). Median CSF WBC was 2530 per mm3 (interquartile range 531–6983 per mm3) and 104 patients (33%) had a CSF WBC <1000/mm3. Patients with a CSF WBC <1000/mm3 were more likely to have an unfavourable outcome (defined as a Glasgow Outcome Scale score of 1–4) than those with a higher WBC (74 of 104 [71%] vs. 87 of 216 [43%]; P < 0.001). CSF WBC was significantly associated with blood WBC (Spearman's test 0.29), CSF protein level (0.20), thrombocyte count (0.21), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (-0.15), and C-reactive protein levels (-0.18). Patients with a CSF WBC <1000/mm3 more often had a positive blood culture (72 of 84 [86%] vs. 138 of 196 [70%]; P = 0.01) and more often developed systemic complications (cardiorespiratory failure, sepsis) than those with a higher WBC (53 of 104 [51%] vs. 69 of 216 [32%]; P = 0.001). In a multivariate analysis, advanced age (Odds ratio per 10-year increments 1.22, 95%CI 1.02–1.45), a positive blood culture (Odds ratio 2.46, 95%CI 1.17–5.14), and a low thrombocyte count on admission (Odds ratio per 100,000/mm3 increments 0.67, 95% CI 0.47–0.97) were associated with a CSF WBC <1000/mm3.
A low CSF WBC in adults with pneumococcal meningitis is related to the presence of signs of sepsis and systemic complications. Invasive pneumococcal infections should possibly be regarded as a continuum from meningitis to sepsis.