Dengue Encephalitis: A True Entity?

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  • Department of Pediatrics, University Hospital, World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Arbovirus Reference and Research (Dengue and Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever), Department of Medical Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
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Involvement of the central nervous system in dengue fever and dengue hemorrhagic fever has always been thought to be secondary to vasculitis with resultant fluid extravasation, cerebral edema, hypoperfusion, hyponatremia, liver failure, and/or renal failure. Thus, the condition has been referred to as dengue encephalopathy. Encephalitis or direct involvement of the brain by the virus was thought to be unlikely. This paper reports on six children who were seen over a period of two years presenting on the second or third day of illness with dengue encephalitis. The diagnosis was based upon a clinical picture of encephalitis and confirmed by cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) microscopy and electroencephalography changes. All six cases were confirmed dengue infections. Dengue 3 virus was isolated from the CSF of four cases and in one case, dengue 2 was detected by the polymerase chain reaction in both the CSF and blood. In the sixth case, virologic evidence was negative but dengue immunoglobulin M was detected in the CSF and blood. Since the onset of encephalitis appears early in the course of illness coinciding with the viremic phase, we postulate that the virus crosses the blood-brain barrier and directly invades the brain causing encephalitis. This study provides strong evidence that dengue 2 and 3 viruses have neurovirulent properties and behave similarly to other members of the Flaviviridae.