A nearly fatal primary Epstein-Barr virus infection associated with low NK-cell counts in a patient receiving azathioprine: a case report and review of literature

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BMC Infectious Diseases. 2019 May 10;19(1):404

Title: A nearly fatal primary Epstein-Barr virus infection associated with low NK-cell counts in a patient receiving azathioprine: a case report and review of literature
Author: Honkila, Minna; Niinimäki, Riitta; Taskinen, Mervi; Kuismin, Outi; Kettunen, Kaisa; Saarela, Janna; Turunen, Sami; Renko, Marjo; Tapiainen, Terhi
Publisher: BioMed Central
Date: 2019-05-10
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10138/301653
Abstract: Abstract Background Symptomatic primary Epstein-Barr virus infection is a usually self-limiting illness in adolescents. We present a case of an adolescent who had been receiving azathioprine for inflammatory bowel disease for four years and developed a life-threatening primary Epstein-Barr virus infection successfully treated with rituximab. Case presentation An 11-year-old girl presented with chronic, bloody diarrhea. Endoscopic biopsies confirmed a diagnosis of chronic ulcerative colitis with features of Crohn’s disease. Azathioprine was initiated after one year due to active colitis. She responded well and remission was achieved. At the age of 16 years she developed a life-threatening Epstein-Barr virus infection including severe multiple organ failure and was critically ill for 4 weeks in the intensive care unit. Natural killer cells were virtually absent in the lymphocyte subset analysis. Azathioprine was stopped on admission. She was initially treated with corticosteroids, acyclovir and intravenous immunoglobulin. Approximately 30 days after admission, she developed signs of severe hepatitis and pneumonitis and received weekly rituximab infusions for 8 weeks. Primary immunodeficiency was excluded by whole exome sequencing in two independent laboratories. Persistent viremia stopped when the natural killer cell count started to rise, approximately 90 days after the cessation of azathioprine. Conclusions We found 17 comparable cases in the literature. None of the previous cases reported in the literature, who had been treated with azathioprine and developed either a severe or a fatal Epstein-Barr virus infection, underwent full genetic and prospective immunological workup to rule out known primary immunodeficiencies. Recently, azathioprine has been shown to cause rather specific immunosuppression, resulting in natural killer cell depletion. Our case demonstrates that slow recovery from azathioprine-induced natural killer cell depletion, 3 months after the stopping of azathioprine, coincided with the clearance of viremia and clinical recovery. Finally, our choice of treating the patient with rituximab, as previously used for patients with a severe immunosuppression and Epstein-Barr virus viremia, appeared to be successful in this case. We suggest testing for Epstein-Barr virus serology before starting azathioprine and measuring natural killer cell counts during the treatment to identify patients at risk of developing an unusually severe primary Epstein-Barr virus infection.
Subject: Epstein-Barr virus infections
Killer cells, natural
Whole exome sequencing

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