OBJECTIVE--To assess the diagnostic potential of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in herpes simplex virus (HSV) encephalitis. METHODS--Samples of CSF from 516 patients with encephalitis were studied for HSV-DNA by PCR. RESULTS--Samples taken one to 29 days from the onset of symptoms from 38 patients (7.4%) were positive, 32 (6.2%) for HSV-1 and six (1.2%) for HSV-2. At follow up, eight of 28 patients studied were still HSV-PCR positive. A diagnostic serum:CSF antibody ratio to HSV but not to other viruses was detected in 25 of the 38 HSV-PCR positive patients thus supporting the initial PCR findings. Patients positive by HSV-PCR were concentrated in the age group > or = 40 years, and especially in patients aged 60-64 years, of whom nine of 24 (37.5%) were positive. The HSV-PCR was negative in all other patients with encephalitis of known or unknown aetiology. This group included 34 patients with a diagnostic serum:CSF antibody ratio to other viruses. A dual infection, HSV and another microbe, was considered possible in seven patients. CONCLUSIONS--The HSV-PCR is a rapid and useful diagnostic method during the early phase of encephalitis. It may be useful in monitoring the efficacy of treatment and allowing the recognition of new features in the appearance of herpes encephalitis. The HSV-PCR test and antibody determinations from serum and CSF are complementary methods, which should both be applied in pursuit of clinical laboratory diagnosis of these conditions.
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