Background: Previous studies have shown the diagnostic utility of qualitative detection of herpes simplex virus (HSV) DNA by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in cerebrospinal fluid samples (CSF) from patients with herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE).
Objectives: To determine whether quantitation of HSV DNA in CSF could be useful for monitoring efficacy of antiviral therapy and provide prognostic indications.
Study design: A quantitative PCR assay using an internal control for evaluation of PCR efficiency and detection of PCR inhibitors was developed and used for retrospective testing of 98 CSF samples from 26 patients with serologically diagnosed HSE during the period 1980-1995.
Results: HSV DNA was detected in 36 CSF samples from 23 patients. PCR positivity was 100% for CSF samples collected within 10 days after onset, and 30.4 and 18.7% for samples collected 11-20 and 21-40 days later, respectively. The 3 PCR-negative patients had their first CSF collected 14, 16, and 28 days after onset, respectively. Three of 98 (3.1%) CSF samples were completely or partially inhibitory to PCR. Initial DNA levels were not significantly different in patients with HSE due to either primary or recurrent HSV infection. In addition, they were not related to severity of clinical symptoms nor were predictive of the outcome. A progressive decrease in viral DNA levels was observed both in patients who received acyclovir therapy and in a small number of untreated patients.
Conclusions: This study: (i) confirms the high sensitivity of PCR for the diagnosis of HSE; (ii) emphasizes the need for an internal control of amplification of achieve maximal sensitivity and perform reliable quantitation of viral DNA; and (iii) suggests that CSF might not be the best specimen to investigate in studies of the natural history of HSE.