Diagnosis of herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE) is based on clinical findings, MRI, and detection of herpes simplex virus (HSV) DNA in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) using polymerase chain reaction amplification. Delays in starting treatment are associated with poorer clinical outcomes. We assessed the timing of initiation of acyclovir therapy in HSE.
Inpatient databases from seven hospitals in Winnipeg, Manitoba were used to identify individuals diagnosed with encephalitis and HSE from 2004 to 2009. The time taken to initiate therapy with acyclovir and the reasons for delays were determined.
Seventy-seven patients were identified; 69 (90%) received acyclovir; in the others a non-HSV infection was strongly suspected. Thirteen patients were subsequently confirmed to have HSE. Acyclovir was initiated a median of 21 hours (3-407) after presentation in encephalitis cases, and a median of 11 hours (3-118) in HSE. The most common reason for delay was a failure to consider HSE in the differential diagnosis, despite suggestive clinical features. Where therapy was delayed in HSE patients, the decision to begin acyclovir was prompted by transfer of the patient to a different service (55%), recommendations by consultants (18%), imaging results (18%), and CSF pleocytosis (9%).
Delays in initiating acyclovir for HSE are common, and are most often due to a failure to consider HSE in a timely fashion on presentation. In order to improve patient outcomes, physicians should be more vigilant for HSE, and begin acyclovir therapy expeditiously on the basis of clinical suspicion rather than waiting for confirmatory tests.