Every day children and adults throughout the world die from acute community-acquired bacterial meningitis, particularly in low-income countries. Survivors are at risk of deafness, epilepsy and neurological disabilities. Osmotic therapies have been proposed as an adjunct to improve mortality and morbidity from bacterial meningitis. The theory is that they will attract extra-vascular fluid by osmosis and thus reduce cerebral oedema by moving excess water from the brain into the blood. The intention is to thus reduce death and improve neurological outcomes.
To evaluate the effects on mortality, deafness and neurological disability of osmotic therapies added to antibiotics for acute bacterial meningitis in children and adults.
We searched CENTRAL 2012, Issue 11, MEDLINE (1950 to November week 3, 2012), EMBASE (1974 to November 2012), CINAHL (1981 to November 2012), LILACS (1982 to November 2012) and registers of ongoing clinical trials (April 2012). We also searched conference abstracts and contacted researchers in the field.
Randomised controlled trials testing any osmotic therapy in adults or children with acute bacterial meningitis.
Data collection and analysis
Two review authors independently screened the search results and selected trials for inclusion. We collected data from each study for mortality, deafness, seizures and neurological disabilities. Results are presented using risk ratios (RR) and 95% confidence intervals (CI) and grouped according to whether the participants received steroids or not.
Four trials were included comprising 1091 participants. All compared glycerol (a water-soluble sugar alcohol) with a control; in three trials this was a placebo, and in one a small amount of 50% dextrose. Three trials included comparators of dexamethasone alone or in combination with glycerol. As dexamethasone appeared to have no modifying effect, we aggregated results across arms where both treatment and control groups received corticosteroids and where both treatment and control groups did not.
Compared to placebo, glycerol may have little or no effect on death in people with bacterial meningitis (RR 1.09, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.89 to 1.33, 1091 participants, four trials, low-quality evidence); or on death and neurological disability combined (RR 1.04, 95% CI 0.86 to 1.25).
Glycerol may have little or no effect on seizures during treatment for meningitis (RR 1.08, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.30, 909 participants, three trials, low-quality evidence).
Glycerol may reduce the risk of subsequent deafness (RR 0.60, 95% CI 0.38 to 0.93, 741 participants, four trials, low-quality evidence).
The only osmotic diuretic to have undergone randomised evaluation is glycerol. Data from trials to date have not demonstrated benefit on death, but it may reduce deafness. Osmotic diuretics, including glycerol, should not be given to adults and children with bacterial meningitis unless as part of carefully conducted randomised controlled trial.