Objective: To determine the prevalence of opportunistic viral infections in multiple tissues at postmortems of HIV-infected patients, and to relate these findings to their antemortem clinical course.
Design: A study of viral infections in 16 tissues of HIV-positive postmortem cases, by a combination of histology and cell culture (virus isolation). Clinical details were abstracted retrospectively from patient records.
Patients: Forty-seven consecutive autopsies, performed between 1985 and 1992.
Setting: Autopsies were conducted by a single pathologist in a single London teaching hospital.
Results: Opportunistic viral infections were detected in 72% of all cases, comprising cytomegalovirus (CMV, 66%), herpes simplex virus (11%), JC virus (6%) and adenovirus (2%). The most commonly infected tissues were lung, adrenal, gastrointestinal tract and central nervous system, although all tissue sites sampled could potentially support viral replication. Of 464 tissues tested by both histology and cell culture, histology alone detected CMV in 45 tissues and cell culture alone detected CMV in 31 tissues. We determined that CMV detection in postmortem gastrointestinal tissues and central nervous tissue was significantly associated with antemortem undiagnosed diarrhoea and encephalitis, respectively.
Conclusion: There is a high prevalence of opportunistic viral infections in late-stage HIV disease, which is best detected postmortem by the use of both histology and cell culture. Many of these infections correlate with undiagnosed symptoms antemortem. The ability of sensitive methods for virus detection to alert the clinician to such cases antemortem should be critically evaluated, as should attempts to influence the natural history of these infections by antiviral drugs. Continuing clinico-pathological audit is important for AIDS patients in order to monitor the impact of known opportunistic viral infections and to identify others which may emerge as immunosuppression becomes more profound.