Objective: To determine the mechanism responsible for idiopathic purpura fulminans, we investigated the procoagulant and anticoagulant pathways in five consecutive patients, four after varicella, and the fifth after a nonspecific infection.
Methods: Procoagulant and anticoagulant factors, including protein C, protein S, and antithrombin III, were measured by quantitative or functional assays. Anti-protein S autoantibodies were identified by dot blotting and Western blotting, and quantified serially by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Clinical and laboratory data were collated retrospectively.
Results: In each case the disease began 7 to 10 days after the onset of the precipitating infection, with rapidly progressive purpura leading to extensive areas of skin necrosis. The illness was complicated by impaired perfusion of limbs or digits (two patients), peripheral gangrene resulting in an above-knee amputation (one patient), and major organ dysfunction caused by thromboembolic phenomena involving the lungs (two patients), the heart (one patient), or the kidneys (one patient). Protein S levels were virtually undetectable at the time of admission and failed to respond to infusions of fresh frozen plasma, despite correction of other procoagulant and anticoagulant factors. All five children had anti-protein S IgM and IgG autoantibodies, which persisted for less than 3 months after admission. Decline in the anti-protein S IgG antibody concentration was associated with normalization of the plasma protein S levels.
Conclusions: Autoimmune protein S deficiency may be a common mechanism causing postinfectious idiopathic purpura fulminans. Recognition of the pathophysiologic mechanism may provide a rational basis for treatment. Immediate heparinization, infusions of fresh frozen plasma, and, in cases complicated by major vessel thrombosis, the use of tissue-type plasminogen activator may limit thromboembolic complications.