Clinical features to distinguish meningitis among young infants at a rural Kenyan hospital

Obiero CW, Mturi N, Mwarumba S, Ngari M, Newton C, Boele van Hensbroek M, Berkley JA
Arch Dis Child. 2021;106

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BACKGROUND: Detection of meningitis is essential to optimise the duration and choice of antimicrobial agents to limit mortality and sequelae. In low and middle-income countries most health facilities lack laboratory capacity and rely on clinical features to empirically treat meningitis. OBJECTIVE: We conducted a diagnostic validation study to investigate the performance of clinical features (fever, convulsions, irritability, bulging fontanel and temperature >/=39 degrees C) and WHO-recommended signs (drowsiness, lethargy, unconsciousness, convulsions, bulging fontanel, irritability or a high-pitched cry) in discriminating meningitis in young infants. DESIGN: Retrospective cohort study. SETTING: Kilifi County Hospital. PATIENTS: Infants aged <60 days hospitalised between 2012 and 2016. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE: Definite meningitis defined as positive cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) culture, microscopy or antigen test, or leucocytes >/=0.05 x 10wedge9/L. RESULTS: Of 4809 infants aged <60 days included, 81 (1.7%) had definite meningitis. WHO-recommended signs had sensitivity of 58% (95% CI 47% to 69%) and specificity of 57% (95% CI 56% to 59%) for definite meningitis. Addition of history of fever improved sensitivity to 89% (95% CI 80% to 95%) but reduced specificity to 26% (95% CI 25% to 27%). Presence of >/=1 of 5 previously identified signs had sensitivity of 79% (95% CI 69% to 87%) and specificity of 51% (95% CI 50% to 53%). CONCLUSIONS: Despite a lower prevalence of definite meningitis, the performance of previously identified signs at admission in predicting meningitis was unchanged. Presence of history of fever improves the sensitivity of WHO-recommended signs but loses specificity. Careful evaluation, repeated assessment and capacity for lumbar puncture and CSF microscopy to exclude meningitis in most young infants with potential signs are essential to management in this age group.