Meningococcal meningitis is a life-threatening disease affecting 1.2 million people every year. Saving lives depends on accurate and rapid diagnosis. As bacterial meningitis can be very serious, treatment with antibiotics will usually start before the diagnosis is confirmed. The only problem with this approach is that antibiotics can prevent an accurate diagnosis of the condition using traditional tests for meningitis, meaning some patients were not getting the right treatment quickly enough.
Professor Johnjoe McFadden, a pioneering molecular geneticist based at the University of Surrey, developed a revolutionary new blood test for rapid diagnosis of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia in 1996. This test, based on the polymerase chain reaction, has gone on to have life-saving impacts around the world.
The test can be used to obtain an accurate diagnosis, even after patients are treated with antibiotics. The test is now routinely used for diagnosis of meningococcal disease worldwide. In the UK alone, 16,000 of these tests are performed each year, leading to rapid diagnosis and treatment of 1,000 patients. The test was also critical in developing effective, life-saving vaccination campaigns. Altogether this test contributed to halving the worldwide meningitis death rate.