Background: Viral infections in children and adolescents with malignancy are commonly encountered and have a significant impact on morbidity and mortality. Studies and epidemiological data regarding viral infections in children with cancer in developing countries are lacking. This retrospective cohort study aims to assess the burden of viral infections in children and adolescents with cancer, by assessing prevalence, risk factors, as well as morbidity and mortality of common viruses over a period of 8 years.
Methods and findings: Medical records of cancer patients treated at the Children Cancer Center of Lebanon were reviewed and 155 participants under the age of 21 were identified with at least one documented viral infection during the period from July 2009 to November 2017. This subset included 136 participants with active malignancy and 19 participants with a history of cancer who underwent hematopoietic stem cell transplantation [HSCT] and were in remission; the latter group was analyzed separately. Information regarding participant characteristics, hospital course, and complications were obtained. Associations between viral infections and certain factors were assessed. In the cohort, 64% were male, 81% were Lebanese. In participants with active malignancy, 90% received chemotherapy in the 6 months preceding the viral infection episode, 11% received radiotherapy. 51% of participants were neutropenic at the time of viral detection, and 77% were lymphopenic. 17% experienced a bacterial co-infection, and 3 experienced a viral co-infection. Among 162 viral infection episodes, clinically diagnosed skin infections, mainly herpes simplex virus type 1 and varicella-zoster virus, were the most common [44% of cases]. These were followed by laboratory-proven systemic herpes infections: cytomegalovirus [14%] and Epstein-Barr virus [6%]. Respiratory viruses: influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, accounted for 9% and 4%, respectively, whereas rotavirus represented 11% and BK virus represented 3% of cases. Acute lymphocytic leukemia was the most prevalent neoplasia [57%]. Fever was the most common presenting symptom [55%] and febrile neutropenia was the reason for admission in 24% of cases. The mean length of stay was significantly longer in participants with cytomegalovirus infections and significantly lower in rotavirus infection. Admission to the ICU occurred in 9%, complications in 8%, and mortality in 5%. Participants with viral infections post-HSCT were noted to have a significantly longer length of hospital stay compared to non-HSCT participants, with no other significant differences in clinical course and outcome. The study was limited by its retrospective nature and by the late introduction and underuse of multiplex PCR panels, which may have led to underdiagnosis of viral infections.
Conclusions: Viral infections were prevalent in our sample of cancer patients and may have contributed to morbidity and mortality. Newly available viral diagnostics are likely to vastly increase the number and scope of detectable viral infections in this population. Prospective studies using multiplex PCR technology with systematic testing of patients will be more helpful in defining the burden of viral infections. Furthermore, efforts at antimicrobial stewardship would benefit from the identification of viral causes of infection and limit the unnecessary use of antibiotics in the pediatric cancer population.