Onchocercal Dermatitis: Ultrastructural Studies of Microfilariae and Host Tissues, before and after Treatment with Diethylcarbamazine (Hetrazan®)

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  • Department of Infectious and Parasitic Disease Pathology, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Helminthiasis Research Unit, Kumba, United Cameroon Republic, and Division of Malaria and other Parasitic Diseases, World Health Organization, Washington, D. C. 20306, Switzerland

Specimens of skin from four Cameroon patients with severe onchocercal dermatitis, before and after treatment with diethylcarbamazine (DEC), were studied by light and electron microscopy. Microfilariae of Onchocerca volvulus have ultrastructural features resembling those of microfilariae of other genera. Between the surface layer of the cuticle and the trilaminate membrane, there is an electrolucent zone which is much wider in degenerating microfilariae than in intact microfilariae. Widening of the zone may result from DEC-induced release of component(s) of the cuticle, possibly collagen or mucopolysaccharide. Between the cuticle and dermal collagen there are granular deposits which might be immune complexes involving the collagenous component of cuticle. Others have shown that DEC does not kill microfilariae in vitro. Treatment with DEC presumably “unmasks” microfilariae in the skin so that they are recognized as foreign bodies and are destroyed by the host's defenses. Histiocytes and eosinophils are seen in close proximity to degenerating microfilariae. Enzymes from histiocytes and eosinophils might readily penetrate the cuticle altered by DEC treatment, and digest various components within the microfilariae. Alternatively, the widening of the electrolucent zone might result directly from the action of leucocytic or histiocytic enzymes, after the microfilaria has been killed by other mechanisms.