An analysis of 112 acute porphyric attacks in Cape Town, South Africa: Evidence that acute intermittent porphyria and variegate porphyria differ in susceptibility and severity

Medicine (Baltimore). 2005 Jan;84(1):48-60. doi: 10.1097/


Four forms of porphyria may present clinically with the acute attack, an episodic, severe, and potentially life-threatening manifestation characterized by abdominal and neurologic symptoms. We describe our experience with 112 consecutive attacks observed and treated in 25 patients with the 2 most common forms of acute porphyria in Cape Town, South Africa; 25 attacks in 10 patients with variegate porphyria and 87 attacks in 14 patients with acute intermittent porphyria. The remaining patient experienced more than 100 sequential, severe, and poorly remitting attacks, which are not included in our analysis. In our population, the relative risk of an acute attack in acute intermittent porphyria compared with that in variegate porphyria was 14.3 (confidence intervals, 6.3-32.7). Patients with variegate porphyria were significantly older (median age at first attack, 30 yr) than those with acute intermittent porphyria (median age at first attack, 23.5 yr; p < 0.0001), and demonstrated an equal sex ratio, whereas the male:female ratio in acute intermittent porphyria was 2:12 (p < 0.0001). There was a significant difference in the incidence of factors precipitating the acute attack. Drug exposure was a frequent precipitant of the acute attack in variegate porphyria, whereas hormonal factors were more important in acute intermittent porphyria (p < 0.00001). Patients with acute intermittent porphyria also showed a trend to earlier and more frequent recurrent acute attacks following the initial admission. Mean urine precursor levels, blood pressure, pulse rate, and heme arginate requirement were all significantly higher in patients with acute intermittent porphyria. No significant difference in the frequency of serious complications or in outcome could be shown. We describe our experience with treatment with heme arginate, and provide evidence that heme arginate results in a prompt and statistically significant improvement in symptoms. The incidence of serious complications and mortality in this series was low, confirming a trend to an increasingly good prognosis for patients with acute porphyria who receive expert treatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / etiology
  • Acute Disease
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Arginine / therapeutic use
  • Epidemiologic Methods
  • Female
  • Heme / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / etiology
  • Male
  • Porphyria, Acute Intermittent / complications*
  • Porphyria, Acute Intermittent / drug therapy
  • Porphyria, Acute Intermittent / metabolism
  • Porphyria, Variegate / complications*
  • Porphyria, Variegate / drug therapy
  • Porphyria, Variegate / metabolism
  • Precipitating Factors
  • Psychotic Disorders / etiology
  • Remission, Spontaneous
  • Sex Factors
  • South Africa
  • Tachycardia / etiology


  • Heme
  • Arginine
  • heme arginate