Objective: To study cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and serum samples from 34 consecutive patients suspected of having varicella-zoster virus (VZV) infection of the central nervous system (CNS).
Population and methods: The patients were divided into three groups. The first group consisted of 27 patients with a rash in one to three dermatomes and clinical suspicion of meningitis and radiculitis; among them, three subgroups were distinguished according to the affected dermatome: ophthalmicus (n = 9), oticus (n = 11) and cervico-thoraco-lumbar zoster (n = 7). Four cases of zoster sine herpete (ZSH) were included in the second group: these patients presented with either radiculitis (n = 2) or meningoencephalitis (n = 2), without cutaneous eruption. The third group consisted of three patients with a generalised rash and encephalitis. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for VZV DNA and antigen-driven immunoblots for oligoclonal anti-VZV antibodies were carried out on all CSF samples.
Results: PCR of the CSF was positive in 44% of the patients from the first group, mainly within the first 7 days after eruption. In addition, intrathecal synthesis of anti-VZV antibodies was detected in 37% of patients, always after an interval of 7 days (p<0.0001). Among the four patients with ZSH, a positive VZV PCR was detected in three patients and CSF-specific oligoclonal anti-VZV antibodies in two. PCR was also positive in the CSF of two of the three patients with generalised rash and encephalitis; local production of anti-VZV antibodies was seen in a second CSF sample in one patient, and was also present in the third patient.
Conclusion: Amplification of VZV DNA by PCR in the CSF and antigen-driven immunoblots have important diagnostic value in suspected VZV infection, although their presence depends on the timing of the CSF sampling. VZV is thought to be a causative agent in unexplained cases of meningitis associated with radiculitis or focal CNS symptoms, even in the absence of skin manifestations. In such patients, rapid diagnosis by this combined approach permits early antiviral treatment.
- CNS, central nervous system
- CSF, cerebrospinal fluid
- IgG, immunoglobulin G
- ITS, intrathecal synthesis
- MRI, magnetic resonance imaging
- PCR, polymerase chain reaction
- VZV, varicella-zoster virus
- ZSH, zoster sine herpete
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See Editorial Commentary, p 901
Published Online First 26 April 2006
Competing interests: None.