Outbreaks of meningococcal meningitis (meningitis caused by Neisseria meningitidis) are a major public health concern in the African “meningitis belt,” which includes 21 countries from Senegal to Ethiopia. Of the several species that can cause meningitis, N. meningitidis is the most important cause of epidemics in this region. In choosing the appropriate vaccine, accurate N. meningitidis serogroup determination is key. To this end, we developed and evaluated two duplex rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) for detecting N. meningitidis polysaccharide (PS) antigens of several important serogroups.
Methods and Findings
Mouse monoclonal IgG antibodies against N. meningitidis PS A, W135/Y, Y, and C were used to develop two immunochromatography duplex RDTs, RDT1 (to detect serogroups A and W135/Y) and RDT2 (to detect serogroups C and Y). Standards for Reporting of Diagnostic Accuracy criteria were used to determine diagnostic accuracy of RDTs on reference strains and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples using culture and PCR, respectively, as reference tests. The cutoffs were 105 cfu/ml for reference strains and 1 ng/ml for PS. Sensitivities and specificities were 100% for reference strains, and 93.8%–100% for CSF serogroups A, W135, and Y in CSF. For CSF serogroup A, the positive and negative likelihood ratios (± 95% confidence intervals [CIs]) were 31.867 (16.1–63.1) and 0.065 (0.04–0.104), respectively, and the diagnostic odds ratio (± 95% CI) was 492.9 (207.2–1,172.5). For CSF serogroups W135 and Y, the positive likelihood ratio was 159.6 (51.7–493.3) Both RDTs were equally reliable at 25 °C and 45 °C.
These RDTs are important new bedside diagnostic tools for surveillance of meningococcus serogroups A and W135, the two serogroups that are responsible for major epidemics in Africa.
There are several strains ofNeisseria meningitidis that can cause seasonal outbreaks of meningitis in Africa. Treatment of patients and containment of the epidemic through vaccination depends on which strain is responsible. The new dipstick tests described here are accurate and suitable for storage and use in resource-poor settings.
Bacterial meningitis, a potentially deadly infection of tissues that line the brain and spinal cord, affects over 1 million people each year. Patients with bacterial meningitis usually have fever, headache, and stiff neck, and may become unconscious and die if the disease is not treated within hours. Most cases of bacterial meningitis occur in Africa, particularly in the arid savannah region south of the Sahara known as the Sahel, where epidemic outbreaks of meningitis occur periodically. This region, also called the “meningitis belt,” extends from Senegal and adjacent coastal countries in West Africa across the continent to Ethiopia. Although most outbreaks tend to occur in the dry season, they differ in frequency in different areas of the meningitis belt, and may involve any of several kinds of bacteria. One of the major causes of epidemic meningitis is Neisseria meningitidis, a meningococcus bacterium that exists in several different groups. Group A has been a common cause of epidemic meningitis in Africa, and some outbreaks were due to group C. More recently, group W135 has emerged as an epidemic strain. In addition to prompt diagnosis and treatment of individual cases, effective public health strategies for controlling meningococcal meningitis include rapid identification of outbreaks and determination of the type of bacteria involved, followed by mass vaccination of people in the surrounding area without delay. Vaccines are chosen on the basis of the responsible meningococcal serogroup: either the inexpensive bivalent vaccine A/C or the expensive, less readily available trivalent vaccine A/C/W135. Before the advent of W135 as an epidemic clone, bivalent vaccine was applied in the meningitis belt without identification of the serogroup. With the appearance of the W135 strain in 2003, however, the determination of serogroup before vaccination is important to select an effective vaccine and avoid misspending of limited funds.
Why Was This Study Done?
Because there are few laboratories in the affected countries and epidemiological surveillance systems are inadequate, it is difficult for health authorities to mount a rapid and effective vaccination campaign in response to an outbreak. In addition, because the two main bacteria (meningococcus and pneumococcus) that cause meningitis require different antibiotic treatments, it is important for doctors to find out quickly which bacteria is causing an individual case. The authors of this study wanted to develop a rapid and easy test that can tell whether meningococcus is the cause of a particular case of meningitis, and if so, which group of meningococcus is involved. As most outbreaks in the meningitis belt occur in rural areas that are distant from well-equipped medical laboratories, it was necessary to develop a test that can be carried out at the patient's bedside by nurses, does not require refrigeration or laboratory equipment, and is highly accurate in distinguishing among the different groups of meningococcus.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers have developed a rapid test to determine whether a patient's meningitis is caused by one of the four most common groups of meningococcus circulating in Africa. The test is done on the patient's spinal fluid, which is obtained by a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) as part of the usual evaluation of a patient thought to have meningitis. The test uses two paper strips, also called dipsticks (one for groups A and W135/Y, and the other for groups C and Y), that can be placed in two separate tubes of the patient's spinal fluid. After several minutes, the appearance of red lines on the dipsticks shows whether one of the four groups of meningococcus is present. The dipsticks can be produced in large quantities and relatively cheaply. The researchers showed that the test dipsticks are stable for weeks in hot weather, and are therefore practical for bedside use in resource-poor settings. They examined the test on stored spinal fluid from patients in Niger and found that the dipstick test was able to identify the correct group of meningococcus more than 95% of the time for the three groups represented in these specimens (the results were compared to a standard DNA test or culture that are highly accurate for identifying the type of bacteria present but much more complicated and expensive).
What Do These Findings Mean?
The new dipstick test for meningococcal meningitis represents a major advance for health-care workers in remote locations affected by meningitis epidemics. This test can be stored without refrigeration and used at bedside in the hot temperatures typical of the African savannah during the meningitis season. The dipsticks are easier to use than currently available test kits, give more rapid results, and are more accurate in telling the difference between group Y and the increasingly important group W135. Further research is needed to determine whether the test can be used with other clinical specimens (such as blood or urine), and whether the test is dependable for detecting group C meningococcus, which is common in Europe but rare in Africa. Nonetheless, the dipstick test promises to be an important tool for guiding individual treatment decisions as well as public health actions, including vaccine selection, against the perennial threat of epidemic meningitis.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030337.
World Health Organization fact sheet on meningococcal meningitis
PATH Meningitis Vaccine Project
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page on meningococcal disease