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Eur J Epidemiol. 1991 May;7(3):270-5.

Diagnosis of rickettsial diseases: a perspective.

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Centers for Disease Control, U.S. Public Health Service, Atlanta, GA 30333.


Rickettsioses have nonspecific clinical manifestations, making them difficult to diagnose in a clinical setting. Laboratory testing is usually needed to confirm the diagnosis. Rickettsial isolation is a sensitive and specific diagnostic technique, but the hazards associated with handling pathogenic rickettsiae usually preclude isolation attempts in most laboratories. Rickettsiae can also be detected in infected tissues by fluorescein-labeled antisera or by immunoperoxidase staining, but these techniques lack sensitivity, except when applied to postmortem tissue specimens. However, rickettsial DNA can be detected in acute phase blood specimens by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, and this technique offers the prospect of prompt diagnosis and treatment. Serologic testing remains the most frequently used approach to diagnosis, although antibody tests usually fail to identify rickettsioses early enough to affect the management of individual patients. Available serologic techniques vary considerably in their sensitivity and specificity. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) are extremely sensitive, but the general unavailability of specific diagnostic antigens reduces the specificity of this and other serologic techniques. Molecular characterization of rickettsial antigens may soon allow the production of peptide antigens that are specific for each species and could maximize the specificity of test results. No diagnostic technique has any value unless it is applied successfully to the appropriate patient population. Improved surveillance of rickettsial diseases is urgently needed to identify specific areas in which rickettsioses are endemic. Such surveillance data would promote awareness of rickettsioses among local physicians and increase the probability that individual patients with rickettsioses would be identified promptly and receive appropriate therapy early in the course of their illness.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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