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An ordinary virus might have proved lethal had vague signs not been swiftly identified. A 44-year-old woman, recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas, was admitted to our university hospital after 2 days of fever, chills, photophobia, pain in the right upper quadrant and back, dysuria, and subsequent altered mental status. Her past medical history was notable for cervical dysplasia, which had been treated by hysterectomy, and breast augmentation.
On examination, the patient was lethargic with stable vital signs. Her eyes were anicteric, and her liver margin was palpated 4 cm below the right costal margin. On hospital day 3, she had about 10 discrete vesicles, 3-5 mm in size, on an erythematous base. These were scattered on the dorsal and palmar surfaces of both hands and on the dorsal feet (Figure 1). A few vesicles were found on her shins; 1 was on her left hip. She had no oral mucosal or genital lesions.
Laboratory results revealed markedly elevated hepatic enzymes, with aspartate aminotransferase peaking at 9020 U/L and alanine aminotransferase reaching 4820 U/L. The patient had an international normalized ratio of 2.4, a platelet count of 68,000/mm3, and a slightly elevated creatinine of 1.3 mg/dL. Blood and urine cultures were negative. No acetaminophen was detected in her serum. Tests for hepatitis A, B, and C, human immunodeficiency virus, antinuclear antibodies, anti-smooth muscle antibody, anti-liver-kidney antibody, and pregnancy were negative. Iron studies and a ceruloplasmin level were normal. Computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans displayed ascites and bilateral pleural effusions.
A transjugular liver biopsy was performed, and a vesicle on the patient's skin was biopsied as well. The liver biopsy demonstrated confluent coagulative necrosis without significant inflammation, and numerous hepatocytes had smudged nuclei and marginated chromatin, consistent with viral inclusions. Immunohistochemical staining of the liver specimen was positive for herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 2. The skin biopsy disclosed an intraepidermal vesicle with keratinocyte necrosis, ghosts of multinucleated giant cells, and overall changes suggestive of herpes infection. A skin biopsy specimen sent for a viral fluorescent antibody test was positive for HSV-2, and a skin tissue culture grew HSV-2.
The presence of isolated skin vesicles coupled with histological and immunohistochemical findings of HSV-associated hepatitis led to a diagnosis of disseminated HSV manifesting as fulminant hepatic failure—a disorder that has now been identified in 2 immunocompetent patients treated at our institution. Both presented with very similar skin findings (Figure 2). These cases illustrate that patients frequently have 10 or fewer scattered distinct vesicles or pustules, predominantly in an acral distribution. It has been estimated that 44% of patients with HSV-associated hepatitis have a herpetic rash, although more detailed descriptions of the skin findings rarely are found in the medical literature. We did not see the grouped vesicles that are typical of localized herpes infection.
Fulminant hepatic failure is defined clinically as acute hepatitis and encephalopathy in a patient with no history of liver disease.
Despite high HSV seroprevalence in the population (62% for type 1 and 17% for type 2), HSV is a rare source of fulminant hepatic failure, accounting for only 1% of all cases or 25-50 cases per year in the United States.
Proposed mechanisms for this peculiar HSV manifestation in an immunocompetent host include overwhelmingly high inoculation and viremia, latent virus reactivation after reinfection by a second HSV strain, infection with specific hepatovirulent strains of HSV, and occult defects in host T-cell immunity.
We suspect that our patient had a primary genital HSV-2 infection induced by an unusually powerful viral strain. Aside from the aforementioned tests, an HSV serologic analysis was performed in this patient—low level antibody detection by Western blot assay was indeterminate for HSV. Antibody profiles to HSV can take 12-16 weeks to develop, especially if the patient is undergoing antiviral therapy. In addition, HSV serologies are difficult to interpret, because IgM can be detected in both primary and recurrent infections.
HSV hepatitis can be readily diagnosed when liver biopsy demonstrates characteristic findings of focal necrosis with minimal surrounding inflammation. Intranuclear inclusion bodies are often found, and immunohistochemical analysis can confirm the presence of viral antigens in tissue sections from skin and liver (Figure 3). Polymerase chain reaction for serum HSV DNA is sensitive and specific, but it can take up to 5 days for results to become available.
Factors portending a particularly poor prognosis include coagulopathy, a platelet count under 75,000/mm3, encephalopathy, alanine aminotransferase levels exceeding 5000 U/L, male gender, age older than 40 years, and an immunocompromised state.
We encourage clinicians to hold a high index of suspicion for disseminated HSV infection in any patient presenting with fulminant hepatic failure of unknown etiology. Careful skin examination should be performed, and strong consideration should be given to empiric acyclovir therapy until this entity has been excluded. Acyclovir is a safe drug, and the potential cost of missing this diagnosis can be devastating. In a recent series, patients treated with acyclovir had a mortality rate of 51% compared with 88% in patients who did not receive acyclovir.
In this same series, a delay in treatment was also significantly associated with a need for liver transplant and with death.
Our patient, despite no identifiable risk factors, presented with a rare and deadly manifestation of a common viral infection. The patient's specific cutaneous findings, scattered discrete vesicles, were an important clue to the diagnosis. Lifesaving treatment with systemic acyclovir was administered early in the course of disease. In 57.6% of cases, diagnosis of HSV hepatitis is made at autopsy.
This might, in part, be due to treatment delays if subtle but important signs on the patient's skin are missed.
Our patient received intravenous acyclovir, 600 mg 3 times a day, early in the disease process. Her symptoms and liver function gradually improved. On hospital day 8, the patient was discharged on oral valacyclovir, 1 g twice a day, for a total of 15 days after discharge. At a follow up visit 2 weeks later, her liver function tests had normalized and symptoms had resolved.