Study objective. To evaluate the performance characteristics and potential clinical utility of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay for enteroviral RNA in comparison to viral culture in infants under 3 months of age with meningitis.
Specimens and testing. Specimens were obtained from a collection of cerebrospinal fluid specimens from infants under 3 months of age (excluding those in the neonatal intensive care unit) undergoing lumbar puncture at St. Louis Children's Hospital during a 12-month period. Those tested by PCR included all 27 with pleocytosis, 8 others from infants without pleocytosis but from whom an enterovirus was cultured, and 10 from infants who did not have pleocytosis and had a negative viral culture of cerebrospinal fluid. Viral cultures were performed at the discretion of physicians caring for individual patients.
Results. PCR was positive for enteroviral RNA on cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) specimens from 11 of 12 patients with definite or probable enteroviral meningitis, as well as on 6 of 13 with possible enteroviral meningitis, and was negative on all 10 with absence of pleocytosis and negative enteroviral cultures. CSF viral cultures were negative in 6 of the patients in whom PCR was positive. Viral cultures had minimal impact on patient management. In contrast, under study assumptions, PCR could have saved an average of 1.2 days of hospitalization per patient in the 27 patients with CSF pleocytosis.
Conclusions. Enterovirus PCR performed on CSF is a sensitive and specific method for the diagnosis of enteroviral meningitis. This method has the potential for improving the accuracy of diagnosis in young infants and for saving costs by allowing earlier diagnosis and discharge from the hospital when clinically appropriate.