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J Clin Oncol. 1995 Jul;13(7):1697-703.

Progressive varicella presenting with pain and minimal skin involvement in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

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Department of Pediatrics, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, PA 15213, USA.



Here we report the experience at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh (CHP) with varicella zoster virus (VZV) in children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). This record review was prompted by a patient with ALL who died suddenly of varicella hepatitis within 24 hours of presentation with a single skin lesion.


We reviewed the medical records of children diagnosed with ALL at the CHP from January 1984 through December 1993, who subsequently developed VZV infection.


Of 294 patients aged 0 to 15 years, 41 (14%) were identified as having had 42 episodes of VZV infection. Twenty patients (49%) had received prophylaxis with varicella zoster immunoglobulin (VZIG), and all 39 patients in whom the diagnosis was made premortem were treated with acyclovir. Twenty-nine of the 42 cases (70%) had disease limited to the skin. Thirteen cases (30%) had extracutaneous involvement, and five of these episodes (12% of all cases) ended in death. Risk factors for progressive varicella included age greater than 6 years and intensive immunosuppressive therapy at the time of exposure. Six of eight patients with progressive varicella, including two who died, had received VZIG. The clinical presentation in 10 of 13 patients with progressive disease and in four of five patients who died was dominated by severe abdominal and/or back pain. In seven cases, these symptoms preceded the development of skin lesions by several days, and in six patients were associated with extensive involvement of the spleen by varicella, as demonstrated histopathologically by the presence of Howell-Jolly bodies on peripheral-blood smear or radiographically. No patient with uncomplicated varicella was reported to have had premonitory pain.


Recognition of these prodromes and suspicion of varicella even in the absence of skin lesions and even in children with a history of prior disease or VZIG administration should prompt early diagnostic and therapeutic measures.

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