Background: Dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) is the severe and life-threatening syndrome that can develop after infection with any one of the four dengue virus (DENV) serotypes. DHF occurs almost exclusively in individuals with secondary heterologous DENV infections and infants with primary DENV infections born to dengue immune mothers. The widely accepted explanation for the pathogenesis of DHF in these settings, particularly during infancy, is antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE) of DENV infection.
Methods and findings: We conducted a prospective nested case-control study of DENV infections during infancy. Clinical data and blood samples were collected from 4,441 mothers and infants in up to two pre-illness study visits, and surveillance was performed for symptomatic and inapparent DENV infections. Pre-illness plasma samples were used to measure the associations between maternally derived anti-DENV3 antibody-neutralizing and -enhancing capacities at the time of DENV3 infection and development of infant DHF. The study captured 60 infants with DENV infections across a wide spectrum of disease severity. DENV3 was the predominant serotype among the infants with symptomatic (35/40) and inapparent (15/20) DENV infections, and 59/60 infants had a primary DENV infection. The estimated in vitro anti-DENV3 neutralizing capacity at birth positively correlated with the age of symptomatic primary DENV3 illness in infants. At the time of symptomatic DENV3 infection, essentially all infants had low anti-DENV3 neutralizing activity (50% plaque reduction neutralizing titers [PRNT(50)] </=50) and measurable DENV3 ADE activity. The infants who developed DHF did not have significantly higher frequencies or levels of DENV3 ADE activity compared to symptomatic infants without DHF. A higher weight-for-age in the first 3 mo of life and at illness presentation was associated with a greater risk for DHF from a primary DENV infection during infancy.
Conclusions: This prospective nested case-control study of primarily DENV3 infections during infancy has shown that infants exhibit a full range of disease severity after primary DENV infections. The results support an initial in vivo protective role for maternally derived antibody, and suggest that a DENV3 PRNT(50) >50 is associated with protection from symptomatic DENV3 illness. We did not find a significant association between DENV3 ADE activity at illness onset and the development of DHF compared with less severe symptomatic illness. The results of this study should encourage rethinking or refinement of the current ADE pathogenesis model for infant DHF and stimulate new directions of research into mechanisms responsible for the development of DHF during infancy.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00377754.