High mortality burden from Acute Bacterial Meningitis (ABM) in resource-poor settings has been frequently blamed on delays in treatment seeking. We explored treatment-seeking pathways from household to primary health care and referral for ABM in Malawi.
A cross-sectional qualitative study using narrative in-depth interviews, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions.
Adults and children with proven and probable acute bacterial meningitis and/or their carers; adults from urban and peri-urban communities; and primary health care workers (HCW).
Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH), urban and peri-urban private and government primary health centres and communities in Blantyre District, Malawi.
Whilst communities associated meningitis with a stiff neck, in practice responses focused on ability to recognise severe illness. Misdiagnosis of meningitis as malaria was common. Subsequent action by families depended on the extent to which normal social life was disrupted by the illness and depended on the age and social position of the sufferer. Seizures and convulsions were considered severe symptoms but were often thought to be malaria. Presumptive malaria treatment at home often delayed formal treatment seeking. Further delays in treatment seeking were caused by economic barriers and perceptions of inefficient or inadequate primary health services.
Given the difficulties in diagnosis of meningitis where malaria is common, any intervention for ABM at primary level must focus on recognising severe illness, and encouraging action at the household, community and primary health levels. Overcoming barriers to recognition and social constraints at community level require broad community-based strategies and may provide a route to addressing poor clinical outcomes.