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Ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis are a group of emerging zoonotic tick-borne infections caused by Ehrlichia and Anaplasma species, respectively. These obligate intracellular, gram-negative rickettsial organisms infect leukocytes and cause a potentially serious febrile illness in humans.
Human granulocytic anaplasmosis (HA) is caused by Anaplasma phagocytophilum, which is transmitted through the bite of an infected Ixodes sp. tick. The epidemiology of this infection in the United States is very much like that of Lyme disease (caused by Borrelia burgdorferi) and babesiosis (caused primarily by Babesia microti), which all have the same tick vector. HA is most prevalent in the upper Midwest and in other areas of the United States that are endemic for Lyme disease.
Human monocytic ehrlichiosis (HE) is caused by Ehrlichia chaffeensis, which is transmitted by the Lone Star tick, Amblyomma americanum. Most cases of HE have been reported from the southeastern and south-central regions of the United States. Ehrlichia ewingii, the known cause of canine granulocytic ehrlichiosis, can occasionally cause an HE-like illness in humans. Clinical features and laboratory abnormalities are similar to those of Ehrlichia chaffeensis infection, and antibodies to Ehrlichia ewingii cross-react with current serologic assays for detection of antibodies to Ehrlichia chaffeensis.
Most recently, Mayo Medical Laboratories detected a new species of Ehrlichia in patients with exposure to ticks in Wisconsin and Minnesota. This organism is most closely related to Ehrlichia muris and has therefore been referred to as the Ehrlichia muris-like agent or EMLA. The name E. muris eauclairensis has recently been proposed after the city in which the first case was described. Ehrlichia muris eauclairensis causes a similar disease to ehrlichiosis due to E. chaffeensis and E. ewingii, and may cause more severe disease in immunocompromised hosts.
Most cases of anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis are subclinical or mild, but infection can be severe and life-threatening in some individuals. Fever, fatigue, malaise, headache, and other "flu-like" symptoms, including myalgias, arthralgias, and nausea, occur most commonly. Central nervous system involvement can result in seizures and coma.
Diagnosis may be difficult since the patient's clinical course is often mild and nonspecific. This symptom complex is easily confused with other illnesses such as influenza, or other tick-borne zoonoses such as Lyme disease, babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Clues to the diagnosis of ehrlichiosis in an acutely febrile patient after tick exposure include laboratory findings of leukopenia or thrombocytopenia and elevated serum aminotransferase levels. However, while these abnormal laboratory findings are frequently seen, they are not specific. Rarely, intra-granulocytic or monocytic morulae may be observed on peripheral blood smear, but this is not a reliable means of diagnosing cases of human ehrlichiosis or anaplasmosis.
Definitive diagnosis is usually accomplished through PCR and serologic methods. Serologic testing is done primarily for confirmatory purposes, by demonstrating a 4-fold rise or fall in specific antibody titers to Ehrlichia species or Anaplasma antigens. There is not currently a commercially available specific serologic test for E. m. eauclairensis, but cross-reactivity with the other Ehrlichia species by serology may be detected.
PCR techniques allow direct detection of pathogen-specific DNA from patients' whole blood and is the preferred method for detection during the acute phase of illness. The Mayo PCR assay is capable of detecting and differentiating A. phagocytophilum, E. chaffeensis, E. ewingii, and E. muris eauclairensis.
It is important to note that concurrent infection with Anaplasma phagocytophilum, Borrelia burgdorferi, and Babesia microti is not uncommon as these organisms share the same Ixodes tick vector, and additional testing for these pathogens may be indicated
Evaluating patients suspected of acute anaplasmosis or ehrlichiosis
Positive results indicate presence of specific DNA from E. chaffeensis, E. ewingii, E. m. eauclairensis organism, or A. phagocytophilum and support the diagnosis of ehrlichiosis or anaplasmosis.
Negative results indicate absence of detectable DNA from any of these 4 pathogens in specimens, but do not exclude the presence of these organisms or active or recent disease.
Since DNA of Ehrlichia ewingii is indistinguishable from that of Ehrlichia canis by this rapid PCR assay, a positive result for Ehrlichia ewingii/canis indicates the presence of DNA from either of these 2 organisms.
This assay should not be used for screening asymptomatic individuals, and should only be used to test patients with signs and symptoms of ehrlichiosis or anaplasmosis.
A negative result does not indicate absence of disease.
Inadequate specimen draw or improper conditions for storage or transport may invalidate test results.
This test may detect DNA of Ehrlichia canis (reported to cause asymptomatic infection in Venezuela only).
This PCR test does not detect DNA of Rickettsia (formerly Ehrlichia) sennetsu, which has been reported to cause a rare mononucleosis-like illness in humans (in Japan and Malaysia).
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