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Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

Visceral leishmaniasis (VL) is a severe disease caused by protozoa of the genus Leishmania that usually affects immunocompetent hosts in endemic areas [1,2]. Since the mid-1980s, VL has been recognized as an opportunistic infection associated with some immunodeficiency states, such as neoplasms, organ transplantation, or treatment with immunosuppressive agents [3,4]. VL has also been recognized as a common complication of patients infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) [5–15]. There have been numerous reports on HIV-related VL [16–27], but some aspects of its epidemiology, clinical features, diagnosis and therapeutic management have not been completely clarified. In this paper, we review the main topics concerning the epidemiology, clinical presentation and therapy of AIDS-related VL.

Epidemiology and demographic features

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

Leishmaniasis is an endemic disease in the Mediterranean basin, where it usually affects immunocompetent individuals, frequently children [28]. A slight increase in the incidence of VL and in the proportion of cases among the adult population has been recently detected in southern Europe [5,28].

Since the mid-1980s, VL has been increasingly reported as a complication of AIDS. As of 1999, more than 1400 cases of HIV–leishmania co-infection had been reported, over 90% of the published cases reported worldwide being observed in Spain, Italy and France [5–7]. This has been interpreted as a result of the high degree of overlap between the two infections in this area. Epidemiologic changes, such as the increased population density in suburban areas, where the vector is widespread and dogs are abundant, have facilitated a growing overlap of VL and AIDS [5,27]. Cases of co-infection have also been reported from other areas of the world, such as India, Brazil, East Africa and South America, as well as in HIV-infected patients traveling to these endemic areas [13,27]. The increase in the incidence of co-infection in these areas, due to the expansion of the AIDS epidemic in VL endemic regions, is a matter of concern. The main epidemiologic and demographic data of the main published series are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1.  Epidemiologic and demographic features of HIV-associated visceral leishmaniasis
Author (year)ReferenceNumber of patientsGeographic areaPrevalencea (%)Male sex (%)Mean age (years)IVDA (%)AIDSb (%)CD4 lymphocytesc
Mean< 200 (%)
  • IVDA, intravenous drug abuser; ND, no data.

  • a

    Percentage of patients with leishmaniasis among AIDS cases.

  • b

    b Previous or simultaneous AIDS at the moment of diagnosis of visceral leishmaniasis.

  • c

    Cells/µL.

WHO (1999)5818WorldND83ND71NDND91
Pasquau et al. (2000)16160Spain3.482347361ND88
Gradoni et al. (1996)10115Italy1.685328467ND93
Rosenthal et al. (2000)891FranceND8638436456ND
Pintado et al. (2001)1780Spain2.3803379549089
López-Vélez et al. (1998)1854Spain2.7853178469689
Peters et al. (1990)1247EuropeND77308234NDND
Medrano et al. (1992)1947Spain8.581336666ND87
Laguna et al. (1997)2043Spain2.198ND8167ND79
Montalbán et al. (1990)2140SpainND90299247204ND
Delgado et al. (1997)5031Spain4.29734685838100
Jover et al. (2000)2222SpainND89311008668ND
Agostoni et al. (1998)1120ItalyND953375704195
Ribera et al. (1995)2320SpainND752850606990
Reus et al. (1999)2419Spain4.3723258585095
Albrecht et al. (1996)1314GermanyND933836ND37100
Sanz et al. (1991)2512SpainND92271003315266
Dereure et al. (1995)1410FranceND7036ND7866100

Since leishmaniasis is not included among the AIDS-defining diseases, little information on its actual prevalence is available through AIDS case notification systems. Since 1998, the World Health Organization has established an active surveillance program to assess the global impact of HIV–leishmania co-infection [5]. Epidemiologic data have revealed that the incidence of VL has progressively increased in southern Europe, and this finding seems to be related to cases associated with HIV infection, which has become the main risk factor for VL in this area [17]. This increase parallels the trend of the AIDS epidemic observed in Spain and other countries of southern Europe. A recent study has demonstrated that, in endemic areas such as France, around 10% of HIV-infected individuals have asymptomatic leishmania infection [29], and it has been estimated that between 2% and 9% of all AIDS patients in southern Europe will develop VL [6]. Recent reports have revealed that in the Madrid area about two-thirds of VL cases reported in the last 10 years have been associated with HIV infection [17].

HIV-related VL usually appears in patients with advanced immunosuppression, supporting the opportunistic role of leishmaniasis in HIV-infected individuals. About half of the patients (between 33% and 78%) have AIDS-defining criteria before the diagnosis of VL [18,19,21,23,30]. The mean CD4+ lymphocyte count is 25–204/µL, and is less than 200/µL in 62–100% of the patients (Table 1). However, VL may appear in HIV-infected patients with different degrees of immunodeficiency, both in asymptomatic HIV carriers and in patients with definitive AIDS [9,19,21,27].

Almost all cases of co-infection have been described in adult patients with HIV-1, but some cases have also been diagnosed in patients with HIV-2 and in children [27]. Leishmania infantum is the species most frequently isolated in co-infected patients in southern Europe, but cases of infection with L. donovani, L. braziliensis, L. aethiopica, L. tropica or L. major have also been reported in other areas of the world [7,27].

Demographic data of co-infected patients reflect the epidemiologic features of HIV infection in the Mediterranean countries (Table 1). The mean age of co-infected patients ranges from 27 to 38 years, and 70–100% are male. The most common risk factor for HIV infection is intravenous drug addiction (50–100%), but VL has been also described in other risk groups, such as homosexuals, heterosexuals with unsafe sexual practices, and recipients of blood products [5,7,27]. The greater frequency of co-infection among intravenous drug users [26,30] has given rise to hypotheses that the drug addiction habit may play a specific role in leishmania transmission [27]. Whereas this result may simply reflect the higher proportion of HIV-infected drug addicts in this area, there is mounting evidence for the possibility of this form of transmission.

Pathogenesis of co-infection

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

It is well known that the cell-mediated immune response largely determines the outcome of Leishmania infection, and therefore only a minority of infected individuals develop clinically apparent visceral disease. The prevalence of VL among AIDS patients is, however, significantly higher than that in immunocompetent individuals (100–2320 times higher) and other groups of immunosuppressed patients [5,9,10,17,18]. HIV-related VL usually appears in patients with advanced immunosuppression, and two mechanisms have been proposed to explain the association between leishmaniasis and HIV-related immunodeficiency [13,27].

Immunosuppression can lead to clinical leishmaniasis by two mechanisms: (1) allowing the reactivation of a latent infection, in a similar manner to most AIDS-associated opportunistic infections; or (2) facilitating the development of the active disease after the primary infection [21,27].

The first hypothesis is supported by the frequent antecedent of a remote episode of leishmaniasis, reported in 4–33% of co-infected patients [21,26,31], and the appearance of VL in other immunosuppressed patients living in non-endemic areas, several years after traveling to endemic areas [13]. The second hypothesis is based on the higher frequency of VL among HIV-infected intravenous drug abusers documented in some Spanish reports [30], which supports the possibility of parenteral human-to-human transmission via contact with needles contaminated by blood infected with Leishmania. The hypothesis of an increased risk of disease after primary infection might also explain the cases of VL produced by dermotropic strains of L. infantum[9], the high variability of Leishmania isolates and the appearance of new zymodemes of the parasite [27,32], and the infections produced by apparently non-pathogenic flagellates [27] described in HIV-infected patients. Concerning the sequence of acquisition, previous reports have documented that HIV-related VL may occur either after primary leishmania infection [31] or as a result of the reactivation of a latent infection [29], and prospective studies are necessary to clarify this point.

Clinical and analytic features

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

Although it has been proposed that VL in immunocompromised hosts shows different clinical manifestations lacking visceromegalies or fever [3], most HIV-infected patients have the clinical features of classic disease. Table 2 summarizes the main clinical and analytic features of HIV-associated VL. Two recent comparative studies have shown that the clinical features of VL in HIV-infected individuals closely resemble those in immunocompetent hosts, and that most HIV–leishmania co-infected patients had fever, hepatosplenomegaly and/or pancytopenia [17,24]. It is noteworthy that leishmaniasis may present as fever of unknown origin; VL has been reported as a cause of this syndrome in 7–23% of HIV-infected individuals [33].

Table 2.  Clinical and analytic features of visceral leishmaniasis associated with HIV infection
Clinical featuresFrequency (%)
Fever67–100
Constitutional symptoms31–90
Hepatomegaly49–100
Splenomegaly65–100
Adenopathy12–57
Atypical features10–34
 Skin involvement8–18
 Lung involvement6–25
 Digestive tract involvement7–18
Analytic features
 Anemia77–100
 Leukopenia75–95
 Thrombocytopenia70–92
 Lymphocytopenia78–81
 Pancytopenia35–82
 Hypergammaglobulinemia40–88

Some authors have reported the unusual or atypical clinical manifestations of VL in HIV-infected patients as compared to those observed in immunocompetent subjects [6,8,9]. Because of the severely immunocompromised condition of these patients, the parasite can spread to tissues that it usually does not inhabit, due to the absence of an efficient immune response system, and colonize atypical locations. A broad spectrum of atypical sites of infection has been reported in this population, including widely disseminated mucocutaneous, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, laryngeal, renal, peritoneal, synovial and cerebral involvement [8,27,34]. The most common reported site has been the skin, with the appearance of cutaneous leishmaniasis concomitant with VL in 8–18% of HIV-associated VL cases [9,21]. In contrast, exclusive cutaneous or mucocutaneous leishmaniasis is uncommon in AIDS patients, occurring in less than 3% of all cases of co-infection [7]. In addition, some authors have reported that VL may be diagnosed fortuitously in 19–27% of HIV-infected patients while examining concurrent HIV-related diseases [8,20]. We believe that sites of involvement of HIV-related VL are similar to those observed in immunocompetent patients. Most of the ‘atypical’ forms of leishmaniasis described in HIV-infected patients should not be classified in this way, because although now rarely observed, the majority have previously been described with variable frequency in immunocompetent subjects [2]. Larger comparative studies are needed to establish whether these manifestations of VL are more frequent in AIDS patients that in the general population.

It is noteworthy that other concomitant opportunistic infections are diagnosed in 42–68% of HIV-infected patients with VL [9,15,19,23]. This finding is not unexpected, since most cases of VL appear when the patient is seriously immunodepressed. The clinical symptoms of VL can therefore be masked by concomitant opportunistic infections in HIV-infected individuals, making the diagnosis of leishmaniasis even more difficult.

Pancytopenia is a characteristic feature of VL, and most co-infected patients have some type of hematologic cytopenia (Table 2). Some reports have shown that the frequency and degree of anemia, leukopenia, lymphopenia and thrombocytopenia are greater in HIV-infected patients that in immunocompetent individuals [17,24]. HIV infection is associated with a wide spectrum of hematologic abnormalities, and hematologic cytopenia is a frequent finding in advanced AIDS. The cause of these abnormalities is multifactorial, and factors such as direct effect of the virus, ineffective hematopoiesis, infiltrative disease of the bone marrow, nutritional deficiencies, peripheral consumption and drug effects may explain the more frequent and pronounced hematologic cytopenia found in HIV-related VL. Hypergammaglobulinemia secondary to B-cell polyclonal activation is a frequent finding in both VL and HIV infection [1,2], and thus the presence of a high gammaglobulin level has a limited diagnostic value in HIV-infected patients with suspected VL. As described above, most HIV-infected patients had advanced immunosuppression at the moment of diagnosis of VL, and, therefore, lymphopenia, a low CD4+ lymphocyte count, and a decreased CD4+ to CD8+ ratio is observed in most patients.

Diagnostic procedures

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

The diagnostic yields of the different diagnostic procedures in HIV-related VL are summarized in Table 3. Splenic aspiration is considered the most sensitive method for the diagnosis of VL, and some reports have shown good results with this procedure in HIV-infected patients [6,18]. However, although complications occur in fewer than 1% of the cases, the risk associated with this procedure is a matter of concern, and thus the experience with this procedure is sparse in European countries. Bone marrow aspirate has been the most frequently employed diagnostic technique in co-infected patients. The reported sensitivities for bone marrow aspirate, biopsy and bone marrow culture have been 62–93%, 38–80%, and 50–100%, respectively (Table 3).

Table 3.  Diagnostic yield of the different diagnostic procedures for visceral leishmaniasis associated with HIV infection
Diagnostic procedureSensitivity (%)
  1. ELISA, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay; PCR, polymerase chain reaction.

Bone marrow 
 Aspirate62–93
 Biopsy38–80
 Culture50-100
 PCR82–100
Splenic aspirate85–100
Liver biopsy68–87
Lymph node biopsy38–50
Skin biopsy75–89
Peripheral blood smear50–53
Peripheral blood PCR97–100
Blood culture25–89
Serology
 Indirect immunofluorescence22–68
 Direct hemagglutination16–68
 ELISA22–58
 Dot-ELISA72–78
 Western blot80–100

The diagnostic yield of these techniques in co-infected patients is similar to that reported in the general population [17,24]. The slightly lower yield of the bone marrow aspirate in HIV-infected patients reported in some series [17,18] could be explained by the hypoplasic bone marrow frequently present in advanced AIDS. The high sensitivity of bone marrow culture, which may be the only positive technique in up to 15% of patients, has led some authorities to recommend its routine use in HIV-infected patients, especially when relapse is suspected. In agreement with previous reports [5,7,9,12], we consider that the elective diagnostic technique for HIV-related VL is bone marrow aspirate with parasitic culture, since not only VL but other causes of fever of unknown origin can be diagnosed.

Some reports have shown the high diagnostic yield of splenic aspiration samples [6,18], the direct examination of peripheral blood smears [20], and buffy-coat parasitic culture [18,35] (Table 3), but other studies have not confirmed these promising results. In addition, the sensitivity of these techniques seems to be lower in relapsing cases [7,20]. The slightly lower sensitivity of liver, lymph node and skin biopsies in HIV-related VL has been established in previous studies [5,18,19,21].

Finally, indirect xenodiagnosis[36], leukocytoconcentration of peripheral blood [37], and polymerase chain reaction [38,39] have been applied to the diagnosis of VL in HIV-infected and non-HIV-infected patients, with promising results. However, because these techniques are not feasible for most clinicians, bone marrow aspiration or biopsy is therefore considered the procedure of first choice for the diagnosis of VL in our setting.

The low yield of serologic studies is one of the most characteristic findings of HIV-related VL; between 43% and 78% of these patients show no detectable levels of anti-Leishmania antibodies [9,18,19,21]. This surprising result is in great contrast with the findings in immunocompetent or other groups of immunodeficient individuals, where significantly positive titers are found in 87–95% of cases [1–4]. These data suggest that the value of serology as a method for detecting Leishmania is limited in HIV-infected individuals. Better results have been reported in recent studies with the use of highly sensitive techniques, such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay [6,9], Western blotting [40], and experimental immunofluorescence tests [31] (Table 3). The combination of two or more serologic techniques may significantly increase the sensitivity of antibody detection, and some authorities have recommended this practice in HIV-infected patients with suspected VL. However, in a study in which several diagnostic methods were compared, 20% of co-infected patients gave negative results with all serologic techniques [39]. The functional impairment of cell-mediated immunity due to HIV infection could result in an absent antibody response to Leishmania, as for other infections. However, the humoral immune response of co-infected patients is extremely variable and apparently independent of the degree of immunosuppression, the clinical stage of AIDS, or the outcome of infection. Gradoni et al suggested that the serologic response could be related to the sequence of temporal acquisition of the infectious agents [31]. Seropositivity would represent a reactivation of latent infection, acquired before the immune depression caused by the HIV, while seronegativity would result from primary leishmania infection acquired after HIV infection.

Treatment and response

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

Despite the high number of reported cases of HIV-related VL, the treatment of choice, the best dosage and the duration of therapy have been not established [6]. Most published reports have been retrospective studies, and it is difficult to reach reliable conclusions about the efficacy and toxicity of the different therapeutic regimens. Although the criteria used to evaluate the response have been variable in previous reports, one of the most relevant findings of HIV-associated VL was the lower response rate to therapy. Previous studies have reported that only 38–87% of co-infected patients achieve a clinical response [9,15,18,23,41] and that a parasitologic response is observed in 38–81% of cases [18,19,41]. In addition, some authors have encountered many difficulties in evaluating the clinical response to treatment of VL in HIV-infected individuals, due to the simultaneous occurrence of multiple opportunistic infections and treatments, early death, toxicity, or being lost to follow-up. The results of therapy of the main published series are listed in Table 4.

Table 4.  Treatment and response of visceral leishmaniasis in HIV-infected patients
Author (year)ReferenceNumber of patientsTherapy (dose and duration)Response (%)a
  • a

    The criteria used to assess the response were different in some reports.

  • b

    b Pentavalent antimony dose.

  • c

    Three patients received allopurinol and two interferon-γ.

  • d

    Maximum daily dose of 850 mg/day in most patients.

  • e

    Six patients received interferon-γ and four allopurinol.

  • f

    f Five patients received allopurinol.

  • g

    g Nine patients received allopurinol.

  • h

    h Four patients were treated with liposomal amphotericin B.

Pentavalent antimonialsb
 López-Vélez et al. (1998)c185120 mg/kg/day (4 weeks)82
 Laguna et al. (1999)444420 mg/kg/day (4 weeks)66
 Montalbán et al. (1990)214020 mg/kg/day (3 weeks)d75
 Pintado et al. (2001)e173520 mg/kg/day (3–4 weeks)d58
 Rosenthal et al. (1995)92420 mg/kg/day (3 weeks)50
 Berhe et al. (1999)542320 mg/kg/day (4 weeks)74
 Ribera et al. (1995)f232020 mg/kg/day (3 weeks)d100
 Laguna et al. (1997)202020 mg/kg/day (4 weeks)80
 Reus et al. (1999)g242120 mg/kg/day (3 weeks)d52
Amphotericin B deoxycholate
 Laguna et al. (1999)44450.7 mg/kg/day (4 weeks)62
 Reus et al. (1999)242015–25 mg/kg (total dose)85
 López-Vélez et al. (1998)h181715 mg/kg (total dose)82
 Pintado et al. (2001)17160.5–1 mg/kg/day (3–4 weeks)61
 Rosenthal et al. (1995)91220 mg/kg (total dose)100
Liposomal amphotericin B
 Russo et al. (1996)4694 mg/kg/day (10 days)89
 Laguna et al. (1995)4854 mg/kg/day (10 days)80

Pentavalent antimonial agents (PAs) are the first-choice therapy for VL in the Mediterranean area [28], and therefore they have been frequently used in co-infected patients. The World Health Organization's recommended treatment with antimonial compounds (20 mg of SbV/kg per day, with a maximum daily dose of 850 mg in adults) seemed to be ineffective for most HIV-infected patients. Higher antimonial doses (20 mg of SbV/kg per day, with no upper-limit daily dose) have been recommended for immunocompetent patients [28,42], and some reports have shown that this treatment could be most effective in HIV-related VL [12,20,43]. Amphotericin B has been used as a second-line treatment for only a limited number of HIV-infected patients, and some studies have reported good results [9,18,20].

A recent randomized trial comparing PA (20 mg SbV/kg per day) with amphotericin B (0.7 mg/kg per day), both for 4 weeks, showed that the efficacy of both regimens was similar in HIV-related VL [44]. An initial cure rate was attained in 66% and 62% of the patients treated with PA and amphotericin B, respectively. A similar response rate (58% for PA and 61% for amphotericin B) has been reported in a recent retrospective study [17].

The frequent treatment failures among HIV-infected patients demonstrate the need for alternative therapies. A broad spectrum of drugs has been used in HIV-related VL, such as liposomal amphotericin B [45,46], pentamidine [13,15], PA in combination with allopurinol [43], aminosidine [12], interferon-γ[47], ketoconazole, allopurinol alone or in combination with azole compounds [17,24], and many others, with variable results. Liposomal amphotericin B has been used in HIV-infected patients, with promising results. However, after the excellent results initially obtained, with a response rate higher than 80%, later studies showed that most patients relapsed in the long term [46,48]. In the future, liposomal amphotericin B could become a first-line drug for VL, although at present its high cost limits its use. Moreover, no comparative studies on the efficacy and toxicity have been reported to recommend the use of alternative therapies.

There are few reports that analyze the toxicity of therapy of HIV-related VL [17,18]. Occasional cases of serious adverse events have been reported, but it is unknown whether HIV-infected patients present adverse events more frequently and/or with greater severity than immunocompetent patients. In a recent prospective study [44], the frequencies of serious toxicity of PA and amphotericin B were similar (55% and 60%, respectively). The patients treated with PA had a higher incidence of cardiotoxicity and hyperamylasemia, while nephrotoxicity and anemia were more frequent in patients receiving amphotericin B. Antimonial-induced pancreatic toxicity has been recently described in immunocompetent and AIDS patients, and there have been some cases of fatal acute pancreatitis. It is remarkable that a high proportion of patients receiving therapy for VL develop an adverse event that precludes the continuation of treatment [17,20,44].

Relapses

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

One of the most outstanding features of HIV-associated VL is its tendency to relapse, observed in 25–61% of patients; some patients followed a chronic course with multiple relapses despite treatment with multiple drugs and regimens of secondary prophylaxis. VL relapse is a early event, and occurs in the first year after the diagnosis in most patients [12,13,16,21,23–25]. A similar high relapse rate has been observed in other immunosuppressed patients, such as transplant recipients [4]. This relapsing course is probably due to the reactivation of the process caused by the inability of the immune system to eradicate the infection, with persistence of latent infection after an apparent cure [21]. In some instances, the development of drug resistance could contribute to the therapeutic failure and relapsing course observed in HIV-infected patients. The characterization of sequential isolates of Leishmania from HIV-infected patients has shown that they belong to the same zymodeme, indicating that infections are due to relapses and not to reinfections [32].

A relapsing course does not seem to depend on the clinical features of the infection, the degree of immunosuppression, or the presence of AIDS [19,21,23]. Previous studies have found that this protracted course of HIV-related VL may be associated with some risk factors, such as the presence of anti-Leishmania antibodies [21], the occurrence of a first VL relapse [49], female gender [16], non-completed therapy for a VL episode [16], and the absence of secondary prophylaxis for VL [16,17,49].

The clinical presentation and the sensitivity of the diagnostic procedures in VL relapses seem to be comparable to those of initial episodes [7,17,18,50]. However, the higher index of clinical suspicion concerning the diagnosis may explain the shorter duration of the symptoms before diagnosis in relapses [17,50]. A broad spectrum of drugs has been used for the therapy of relapses in HIV-infected patients (high-dose PA, alone or in combination with allopurinol or interferon-γ, amphotericin B, liposomal amphotericin B, etc.) [12,13,15,24,43,47]. Although the efficiency of second-line treatments under these circumstances has not been adequately explored, the response rate to the therapy with either PA or amphotericin B is comparable to that observed in the initial episodes [17,18].

Secondary prophylaxis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

The high relapse rate of AIDS-related VL has led to the empirical use of different maintenance regimens, but the optimal regimen for secondary prophylaxis has not yet been established. Allopurinol [23], liposomal amphotericin B [51], antimonials [49], pentamidine [18] and azole compounds [13,24] have been used as prophylactic drugs in HIV-infected individuals, with variable results. Unfortunately, all reported studies have been retrospective, with an open design, and have included few patients, making it difficult to reach reliable conclusions. In a recent non-randomized, retrospective study [49], the probability of remaining relapse-free at 12 months was 9% without prophylaxis, 21% with daily allopurinol, and 93% with monthly pentavalent antimony. Another retrospective study has shown that patients receiving either monthly PA or liposomal amphotericin B have a significantly lower relapse rate than patients receiving no prophylaxis [17]. Although prospective randomized trials are necessary to determine the best regimen for secondary prophylaxis in HIV-related VL, the routine use of secondary prophylaxis seems to be advisable in these patients, PA and amphotericin B being the drugs that could be most effective in this situation.

Outcome and prognostic factors

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

The different clinical course, mostly related to the higher relapse and mortality rates, and the shortened survival are the most noteworthy characteristics of HIV-associated VL. Before the introduction of the new antiretroviral therapies, the mortality in co-infected patients was very high. Overall mortality has varied between 24% and 60% [12,16,18,20,21,26], and it is noteworthy that between 10% and 27% of patients died during the first month after the diagnosis of VL [18,20]. Although most patients died from other AIDS-related diseases such as concomitant opportunistic infections or complications of therapy, it is conceivable that leishmaniasis contributed to the poor outcome, either by causing immunosuppression independent of HIV or by stimulating HIV replication.

The outcome of VL depends on the development of specific cellular immunity by T-lymphocytes, which secrete different cytokines in response to antigenic stimulation. The Th1-type response, mediated by interleukin-2, interleukin-12, and interferon-γ, leads to the activation of macrophages and enhanced intracellular killing of parasites, whereas the predominance of Th2-type cytokines, such as interleukin-4 and interleukin-10, is associated with progressive disease [52]. The association between leishmaniasis and HIV infection is a logical consequence of cellular immunodeficiency. The Th1-type response is severely impaired in patients with advanced HIV infection. In addition, active Leishmania infection induces a prolonged Th2-type cell activation in HIV-infected patients which determines an increase in viral replication and a progressive decrease in CD4+ lymphocytes [53,54], supporting the notion that co-infection plays an important role in the pathogenesis and disease progression of both infections.

Although antiparasitic treatment seems to restore cytokine production in immunocompetent hosts, this may not be the case if T-helper lymphocytes are primarily affected, as happens in HIV infection [27]. In such cases, the treatment may not be effective in killing intracellular parasites, thus explaining the unsuccessful response and the chronic-relapsing course of VL in HIV-infected patients. The progressive immunodeficiency associated with co-infection may modify the natural history of HIV infection, as demonstrated by the fact that between 44% and 75% of patients with relapsing leishmaniasis will develop AIDS in the months following the diagnosis of VL [21,23,53].

The mean survival time in co-infected patients varies from 3 to 25 months [6,7,13,15,21,25], and the probability of being alive 12 months after the first episode is approximately 60%. Previous studies have found some factors that may influence the mortality, such as the diagnosis of AIDS [18,21,23], the presence of severe AIDS-related diseases [20], the CD4+ lymphocyte count [16,17,20], the degree of thrombocytopenia at the moment of diagnosis of VL [18], the use of secondary prophylaxis for VL [16,17], antiretroviral therapy [17], and the chronic-relapsing course [21]. In two recent studies, the survival of HIV-infected patients with VL but without AIDS was similar to that of patients with other AIDS-defining illness but without VL [16,18], a finding that emphasizes the prognostic significance and opportunistic nature of VL in this population.

HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has been widely used in HIV-infected patients since 1996, and this treatment has led to a striking reduction in morbidity and mortality among AIDS patients. There has been an overall reduction of the incidence of major opportunistic infections, changes in manifestations of some infections, and improvement in clinical outcomes. The beneficial effect of HAART has also been demonstrated in other parasitic infections such as cryptosporidiosis and toxoplasmosis, and some recent reports have began to show the beneficial impact of HAART on the epidemiology and outcome of AIDS-related VL.

Two recent reports from Spain and Italy have demonstrated a decreasing incidence of VL among HIV-infected patients after the widespread use of this therapy [55,56]. Another recent study has demonstrated a significant improvement in the survival of HIV–leishmania co-infected patients receiving HAART [57]. In addition, immune reconstitution after HAART may allow the withdrawal of secondary prophylaxis for VL in patients with a CD4 lymphocyte count higher than 200/µL [58]. Unfortunately, a high relapse rate of VL (26–70%) has been observed in co-infected patients, despite the use of HAART [17,59,60]. In the near future, the widespread use of HAART and the implementation of secondary prophylaxis for VL can contribute to a progressive decrease in the morbidity and mortality of HIV-associated VL.

Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

The increased incidence and the different clinical course of VL among HIV-infected individuals have led some authorities and the European Committee of the World Health Organization to propose the inclusion of VL among the AIDS diagnostic criteria [6,7,18,23,41]. Most studies have demonstrated that VL behaves as an opportunistic infection in HIV-infected patients, and that its epidemiologic and clinical features closely resemble those of other AIDS-related infections. HIV-related VL has a clear epidemiologic relation with HIV infection, it usually appears in the presence of profound immunodeficiency, and it has a different clinical outcome in HIV-infected individuals, characterized by high relapse and mortality rates, and shortened survival. The possible inclusion of VL as a diagnosis criterion for AIDS in HIV-infected patients should therefore be considered an open question.

Conclusions and future directions

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References

Visceral leishmaniasis has become a common complication among AIDS patients living in endemic areas, where it behaves as an opportunistic infection in this population. The immunologic and virologic aspects of co-infection with HIV–Leishmania comprise one of the most important areas of research that should be explored in the near future. Although new antiretroviral therapy has begun to change the epidemiology and the prognosis of AIDS-related leishmaniasis, we need improved diagnostic tests to detect the disease, as well as new drugs, more effective and less toxic, for the treatment and prophylaxis of this infection.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Introduction
  3. Epidemiology and demographic features
  4. Pathogenesis of co-infection
  5. Clinical and analytic features
  6. Diagnostic procedures
  7. Treatment and response
  8. Relapses
  9. Secondary prophylaxis
  10. Outcome and prognostic factors
  11. HAART and HIV-related visceral leishmaniasis
  12. Visceral leishmaniasis as an AIDS-defining disease
  13. Conclusions and future directions
  14. Acknowledgment
  15. References
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