Brussels, May 2003
European scientists have found a fast and accurate way to test for meningitis in remote areas of Africa is to bring the lab to them.
Meningitis and septicaemia are life-threatening diseases, responsible for thousands of deaths around the world every year. But diagnosing the causes of this potentially deadly disease presents doctors and scientists with a problem. Knowing the signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia, and acting quickly to get medical help, can save lives. A team of doctors from France and Germany are testing a mobile laboratory in remote parts of Africa.
French NGO, Aid to Preventive Medicine, together with researchers from the University of Munster (Germany), have installed the latest testing equipment in their 'lab on wheels', which they are driving to isolated regions of the small West African country Burkina Faso. Faster diagnosis has helped doctors prescribe appropriate treatment before individual cases can reach a life-threatening stage. According to Le Figuro, accurate diagnosis like this helps epidemiologists in tracking genuine epidemics of the deadly forms of the disease.
This supports the European Commission's Public Health DG's views on how best to monitor and control communicable diseases: "… [W]ell-functioning surveillance … systems provide information for early detection of potential outbreaks, and help to identify disease trends, risk factors, and the need for intervention. They provide information for priority setting, planning, implementation and resource allocation for preventive programmes and for evaluating preventive programmes and control measures."
Diseases under surveillance
In fact communicable diseases – such as meningitis, tuberculosis and influenza – pose a serious worldwide threat to human health, contributing to about one third of all deaths occurring globally. "Communicable diseases do not respect national frontiers and can spread rapidly if actions are not taken to combat them," according to the Public Health DG's website.
New diseases emerge, SARS and HIV being the most publicised, while others develop drug-resistant forms, such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, which confirm the importance of effective surveillance and testing in controlling the spread of communicable diseases.
Meningitis causes inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord, whereas septicaemia is blood poisoning and can be caused by the same germs that cause meningitis. These germs that cause them are usually viruses but they can also be bacteria – which tends to be far more serious.
The fight against this deadly disease is complicated by the difficulty of correctly identifying which form a patient is suffering from. This frequently leads to over-declaration of the non-epidemic versions of the disease which weakens the surveillance and controlling measures put in place to stop it spreading. Being able to quickly identify samples of meningococcal bacteria is critical to saving lives and preventing outbreaks.