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Don't rash it! The clinical significance of positive Varicella zoster virus PCR in cerebrospinal fluid of patients with neurological symptoms.

BACKGROUND: Varicella zoster virus (VZV) is among the leading pathogens causing meningitis and encephalitis. While VZV-PCR-positive CSF is considered a gold-standard for diagnosis, it is not-uncommon to detect VZV-DNA in CSF of patients with other acute or chronic illness. Our goal was to determine the clinical relevance of VZV-PCR-positive CSF when investigating patients with neurological symptoms.

METHODS: In this retrospective cohort from the largest hospital in Israel, we collected demographic, clinical and laboratory data of patients with VZV-PCR-positive CSF, analyzing the significance of various parameters.

RESULTS: During a 5-years study, 125 patient-unique VZV-PCR-positive CSFs were recorded, in which only 9 alternative diagnoses were noted. The commonest symptoms were headache (N = 104, 83 %) and rash (N = 96, 76 %). PCR-cycle-threshold (Ct), a surrogate of viral burden, did not significantly vary across the clinical manifestations; however, patients with rash and Ct<35 were prone to develop stroke in the following year (N = 6, 7 %). Empiric nucleoside-analogue treatment was not associated with a better outcome compared to treatment administered upon a positive-PCR result.

DISCUSSION: Our findings suggest that in patients with neurological symptoms, detection of VZV-DNA in CSF renders VZV the probable culprit. Nevertheless, a systematic evaluation of treatment and follow-up algorithms of patients with suspected or proved VZV meningitis and encephalitis is needed. The benefits of a prompt treatment should be weighed against the potential complications of nucleoside-analogue. Conversely, the propensity for stroke in patients with higher viral-burden, necessitates further studies assessing VZV causal role, directing additional workup, treatment and monitoring policy.

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