A 7 month old female presented to the emergency department (ED) due to fever and seizure-like episodes. Her mother reported the child had been persistently febrile for 5 days (Tmax 103.9°F) with rhinorrhea, fussiness and decreased oral intake. The patient experienced 3 seizure-like episodes on the day of admission, which the mother described as periods of “shaking” with eyes rolling back. The child was unresponsive during these episodes, which lasted 1 to 2 minutes each. The child had been taken to her pediatrician the day prior to presentation to the ED where she was given a shot of ceftriaxone for presumed otitis media. The child received a chest x-ray, influenza testing, and blood and urine cultures were collected. She also had a lumbar puncture performed and the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) was sent for chemistries, bacterial culture and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for meningitis/encephalitis pathogens. She was started on IV ceftriaxone.
The child’s white blood cell count from peripheral blood was 7.1 TH/cm2 and chest x-ray, urinalysis and flu testing were unremarkable. The CSF was clear and colorless with 7 WBC/cm2, glucose of 57 mg/dL and protein of 21 mg/dL. The cytospin Gram stain identified no organisms. The meningitis/encephalitis panel detected the presence of human herpesvirus 6 (HHV-6).
Human herpesvirus 6 is a member of the Herpesviridae family and was the sixth herpes virus identified. Structurally, HHV-6 possesses a double stranded DNA genome and is enveloped. Clinically, it is the etiologic agent of roseola infantum (exanthum subitum) in infants and toddlers. Primary infection occurs in early childhood and those infected can be asymptomatic or have a non-specific febrile illness while only the minority present with the characteristic red macular rash prominent on the trunk and extremities, lymphadenopathy and high fevers. HHV-6 is highly neurotropic and as such causes viral encephalitis with 5-15% of children experiencing febrile seizures as a result of this illness. HHV-6 is highly prevalent with a greater than ninety percent seropervalence rate. HHV-6 establishes latency in T lymphocytes and can reactivate & cause disease, especially in immunocompromised patients such as those recipients of stem cell or solid organ transplants.
Traditional laboratory methods of identification for HHV-6 were challenging as viral culture, while once the gold standard for active disease, is not practical for most labs and is no longer used in routine diagnostics. PCR from serum, plasma or CSF has become the preferred test as there are now FDA-cleared, commercial platforms that are easy to use, allow for rapid turnaround time and in the case of multiplex PCR panels, the ability to target multiple pathogens from one test. Serology, while helpful in the diagnosis of primary infections, may not be provide conclusive results in a timely manner and is of limited utility in reactivation. Other less commonly used methods include immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization and electron microscopy.
The prognosis for patients infected with HHV-6 is generally good with self-limited illness not requiring treatment. Rarely, multi-organ involvement can occur and HHV-6 infection in immunosuppressed patients can be a major cause of morbidity and mortality. There is no antiviral therapy licensed for the treatment of reactivated disease in this setting, but approaches using ganciclovir and valganciclovir have been proposed.
In the case of our patient, her blood, urine and CSF cultures were negative and her antibiotics were stopped after cultures were no growth at 24 hours. She required no treatment other than supportive care with acetaminophen for fever control. Prior to discharge, she developed a fine rash on her face, the back of her neck and trunk that was characteristic of an HHV-6 rash. This case demonstrates the utility of multiplex PCR testing in providing rapid identification of pathogenic organisms allowing for real time diagnosis and the limiting of unnecessary treatment.
-Eric Tillotson, MD, is a second year Anatomic and Clinical Pathology resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
-Lisa Stempak, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pathology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, MS. She is certified by the American Board of Pathology in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology as well as Medical Microbiology. She is the director of the Microbiology and Serology Laboratories. Her interests include infectious disease histology, process and quality improvement and resident education.