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Clin Microbiol Rev. 2010 Oct;23(4):740-80. doi: 10.1128/CMR.00048-09.

Infections of people with complement deficiencies and patients who have undergone splenectomy.

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  • 1Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Lazare Research Building, Room 322, 364 Plantation Street, Worcester, MA 01605, USA.


The complement system comprises several fluid-phase and membrane-associated proteins. Under physiological conditions, activation of the fluid-phase components of complement is maintained under tight control and complement activation occurs primarily on surfaces recognized as "nonself" in an attempt to minimize damage to bystander host cells. Membrane complement components act to limit complement activation on host cells or to facilitate uptake of antigens or microbes "tagged" with complement fragments. While this review focuses on the role of complement in infectious diseases, work over the past couple of decades has defined several important functions of complement distinct from that of combating infections. Activation of complement in the fluid phase can occur through the classical, lectin, or alternative pathway. Deficiencies of components of the classical pathway lead to the development of autoimmune disorders and predispose individuals to recurrent respiratory infections and infections caused by encapsulated organisms, including Streptococcus pneumoniae, Neisseria meningitidis, and Haemophilus influenzae. While no individual with complete mannan-binding lectin (MBL) deficiency has been identified, low MBL levels have been linked to predisposition to, or severity of, several diseases. It appears that MBL may play an important role in children, who have a relatively immature adaptive immune response. C3 is the point at which all complement pathways converge, and complete deficiency of C3 invariably leads to severe infections, including those caused by meningococci and pneumococci. Deficiencies of the alternative and terminal complement pathways result in an almost exclusive predisposition to invasive meningococcal disease. The spleen plays an important role in antigen processing and the production of antibodies. Splenic macrophages are critical in clearing opsonized encapsulated bacteria (such as pneumococci, meningococci, and Escherichia coli) and intraerythrocytic parasites such as those causing malaria and babesiosis, which explains the fulminant nature of these infections in persons with anatomic or functional asplenia. Paramount to the management of patients with complement deficiencies and asplenia is educating patients about their predisposition to infection and the importance of preventive immunizations and seeking prompt medical attention.

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