Context: During the 1999 New York City West Nile virus (WNV) outbreak, 4 patients with profound muscle weakness, attributed to Guillain-Barré syndrome, were autopsied. These cases were the first deaths caused by WNV, a flavivirus, to be reported in the United States. The patients' brains had signs of mild viral encephalitis; spinal cords were not examined. During the 2002 national epidemic, several patients in Mississippi had acute flaccid paralysis. Electrophysiologic studies localized the lesions to the anterior horn cells in the spinal gray matter. Four of 193 infected patients in Mississippi died and were autopsied. All 4 experienced muscular weakness and respiratory failure that required intubation. Postmortem examinations focused on the spinal cord.
Objective: To emphasize apparent tropism of WNV for the ventral gray matter of the spinal cord.
Design: Cerebral hemispheres, basal ganglia, diencephalon, brainstem, cerebellum, and spinal cord sections were stained with hematoxylin-eosin and incubated with antibodies to T cells, B cells, and macrophages/microglial cells.
Results: We identified neuronophagia, neuronal disappearance, perivascular chronic inflammation, and microglial proliferation in the ventral horns of the spinal cord, especially in the cervical and lumbar segments. Loss of ganglionic neurons, nodules of Nageotte, and perivascular lymphocyte aggregates were found in dorsal root and sympathetic ganglia. Severity of cellular reaction was proportional to the interval length between patient presentation and death.
Conclusion: West Nile virus caused poliomyelitis. Injury to spinal and sympathetic ganglia mirrored the damage to the spinal gray matter. The disappearance of sympathetic neurons could lead to the autonomic instability observed in some WNV patients, including labile vital signs, hypotension, and potentially lethal cardiac arrhythmias.