Queen's University Belfast has set up a centre for meningitis research which aims to help early detection of the life-threatening disease and develop new drug therapies. The new centre, a collaborative venture between the university's school of biology and biochemistry and department of general practice, has won initial funding of Pounds 115,000 from local charity Ulster Garden Villages Ltd.
Meningitis, which is caused either by bacteria or a virus, can affect all ages, but is particularly prevalent in toddlers. The more common viral meningitis rarely causes serious problems, but bacterial meningitis can develop into septicaemia, a potentially fatal condition.
Philip Reilly, professor of general practice, said: "It must be remembered that GPs are not presented with meningitis, but rather with hot, sick children with non-specific symptoms. The problems with diagnosis are that these symptoms can be caused by any one of a number of factors, and that the early stages of viral and bacterial meningitis are almost identical."
Queen's researchers in biology and biochemistry have already developed a blood test that measures the concentration of the enzyme that causes septicaemia. The centre's coordinator, Philip Turkington, said: "This means that if a GP performs this test on a child with suspected meningitis and it shows a low concentration, then bacterial meningitis can be ruled out."
Current tests take several hours and can only be carried out in hospital, but Dr Turkington said the centre aimed to develop a "dip stick" version of the Queen's test, which GPs and nurses could use in surgeries and home visits.
"This would allow children to be hospitalised immediately if the result were positive, and will quickly reassure parents if it is not. It is hoped that this test will be available to GPs within two years."