Background: In Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection, IgG- and IgM-antibodies to viral capsid antigen (VCA) and IgG-antibodies to Epstein-Barr nuclear antigen 1 (EBNA-1) can occur simultaneously both in late primary infection and during subclinical viral reactivation in immunocompetent persons, and the differential diagnosis is of importance.
Objectives: To study the prevalence of primary infection and serological reactivation in patients with suspected primary EBV infection and with all three parameters present.
Study design: Fifty serum samples from 43 consecutive patients referred for suspected infectious mononucleosis and positive for VCA IgG-, VCA IgM- and EBNA-1-antibodies by EIA, were tested for IgG-antibody avidity with an EBV IgG immunoblot. Sera were also tested for heterophile antibodies (HA). To verify the presence of IgM-antibodies an EBV IgM immunoblot was performed when high-avidity IgG-antibodies were found.
Results and conclusions: Of 43 patients with suspected primary EBV infection and VCA IgG-, VCA IgM- and EBNA-1-antibodies present, only 18 patients (42%) had a late primary infection. Twenty-one patients (49%) had high-avidity IgG-antibodies, indicating an IgM response due to reactivation, thus suggesting other causes for their symptoms. In 10 of these 21 patients the presence of IgM-antibodies was confirmed by immunoblot, indicating reactivation as a cause of IgM-antibodies in at least 23% of the 43 patients studied. Of 18 patients with primary infection, HA were detected in 16 (94%) of 17 patients tested. Only one (5%) of the patients with high-avidity antibodies had HA. Absence of HA in patients with this serological pattern is therefore a good indicator of reactivation, and conversely, the presence of HA is a good indicator of primary infection. In HA negative patients, avidity testing could be used for differential diagnosis.