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Clin Vaccine Immunol. 2012 May;19(5):787-90. doi: 10.1128/CVI.05724-11. Epub 2012 Mar 21.

Microbiological challenges in the diagnosis of chronic Q fever.

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Division of Medicine, Dept. of Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases, University Medical Center Utrecht, Utrecht, the Netherlands.


Diagnosis of chronic Q fever is difficult. PCR and culture lack sensitivity; hence, diagnosis relies mainly on serologic tests using an immunofluorescence assay (IFA). Optimal phase I IgG cutoff titers are debated but are estimated to be between 1:800 and 1:1,600. In patients with proven, probable, or possible chronic Q fever, we studied phase I IgG antibody titers at the time of positive blood PCR, at diagnosis, and at peak levels during chronic Q fever. We evaluated 200 patients, of whom 93 (46.5%) had proven, 51 (25.5%) had probable, and 56 (28.0%) had possible chronic Q fever. Sixty-five percent of proven cases had positive Coxiella burnetii PCR results for blood, which was associated with high phase I IgG. Median phase I IgG titers at diagnosis and peak titers in patients with proven chronic Q fever were significantly higher than those for patients with probable and possible chronic Q fever. The positive predictive values for proven chronic Q fever, compared to possible chronic Q fever, at titers 1:1,024, 1:2,048, 1:4,096, and ≥1:8,192 were 62.2%, 66.7%, 76.5%, and ≥86.2%, respectively. However, sensitivity dropped to <60% when cutoff titers of ≥1:8,192 were used. Although our study demonstrated a strong association between high phase I IgG titers and proven chronic Q fever, increasing the current diagnostic phase I IgG cutoff to >1:1,024 is not recommended due to increased false-negative findings (sensitivity < 60%) and the high morbidity and mortality of untreated chronic Q fever. Our study emphasizes that serologic results are not diagnostic on their own but should always be interpreted in combination with clinical parameters.

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