Invasion of and multiplication in a host by disease-causing pathogens or organisms, and the reaction of host tissues
Top 10 Infection related articles
- 1 Types
- 2 Classification
- 3 Signs and symptoms
- 4 Pathophysiology
- 5 Diagnosis
- 6 Prevention
- 7 Treatments
- 8 Epidemiology
- 9 Germ theory of disease
- 10 Society and culture
- 11 Fossil record
- 12 Outer space
- 13 See also
- 14 References
- 15 External links
|False-colored electron micrograph showing a malaria sporozoite migrating through the midgut epithelium of a rat|
|Causes||bacterial, viral, parasitic, fungal, prion|
An infection is the invasion of an organism's body tissues by disease-causing agents, their multiplication, and the reaction of host tissues to the infectious agents and the toxins they produce. An infectious disease, also known as a transmissible disease or communicable disease, is an illness resulting from an infection.
Infections can be caused by a wide range of pathogens, most prominently bacteria and viruses but also more unusual types. Hosts can fight infections using their immune system. Mammalian hosts react to infections with an innate response, often involving inflammation, followed by an adaptive response.
Specific medications used to treat infections include antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, antiprotozoals, and antihelminthics. Infectious diseases resulted in 9.2 million deaths in 2013 (about 17% of all deaths). The branch of medicine that focuses on infections is referred to as infectious disease.
Infection Intro articles: 9
Infections are caused by infectious agents (pathogens) including:
- Bacteria (Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Clostridium botulinum, and Salmonella spp.)
- Viruses and related agents such as viroids (HIV, Rhinovirus, Lyssaviruses such as Rabies virus, Ebolavirus and Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2)
- Fungi, further subclassified into:
- Prions (although they don't secrete toxins)
- Parasites, which are usually divided into:
- Arthropods such as ticks, mites, fleas, and lice, can also cause human disease, which conceptually are similar to infections, but invasion of a human or animal body by these macroparasites is usually termed infestation. (Diseases caused by helminths, which are also macroparasites, are sometimes termed infestations as well, but are sometimes called infections.)
Infection Types articles: 37
Subclinical versus clinical (latent versus apparent)
Symptomatic infections are apparent and clinical, whereas an infection that is active but does not produce noticeable symptoms may be called inapparent, silent, subclinical, or occult. An infection that is inactive or dormant is called a latent infection. An example of a latent bacterial infection is latent tuberculosis. Some viral infections can also be latent, examples of latent viral infections are any of those from the Herpesviridae family.
The word infection can denote any presence of a particular pathogen at all (no matter how little) but also is often used in a sense implying a clinically apparent infection (in other words, a case of infectious disease). This fact occasionally creates some ambiguity or prompts some usage discussion; to get around this it is common for health professionals to speak of colonization (rather than infection) when they mean that some of the pathogens are present but that no clinically apparent infection (no disease) is present.
Different terms are used to describe infections. The first is an acute infection. An acute infection is one in which symptoms develop rapidly; its course can either be rapid or protracted. The next is a chronic infection. A chronic infection is when symptoms develop gradually, over weeks or months, and are slow to resolve. A subacute infection is one in which symptoms take longer to develop than in an acute infection but arise more quickly than a chronic infection. A latent infection is a type of infection that may occur after an acute episode; the organism is present but symptoms are not; after time, the disease can reappear. A focal infection is defined as the initial site of infection from which organisms travel via the bloodstream to another area of the body.
Primary versus opportunistic
Among the many varieties of microorganisms, relatively few cause disease in otherwise healthy individuals. Infectious disease results from the interplay between those few pathogens and the defenses of the hosts they infect. The appearance and severity of disease resulting from any pathogen depend upon the ability of that pathogen to damage the host as well as the ability of the host to resist the pathogen. However, a host's immune system can also cause damage to the host itself in an attempt to control the infection. Clinicians, therefore, classify infectious microorganisms or microbes according to the status of host defenses - either as primary pathogens or as opportunistic pathogens:
Primary pathogens cause disease as a result of their presence or activity within the normal, healthy host, and their intrinsic virulence (the severity of the disease they cause) is, in part, a necessary consequence of their need to reproduce and spread. Many of the most common primary pathogens of humans only infect humans, however, many serious diseases are caused by organisms acquired from the environment or that infect non-human hosts.
Opportunistic pathogens can cause an infectious disease in a host with depressed resistance (immunodeficiency) or if they have unusual access to the inside of the body (for example, via trauma). Opportunistic infection may be caused by microbes ordinarily in contact with the host, such as pathogenic bacteria or fungi in the gastrointestinal or the upper respiratory tract, and they may also result from (otherwise innocuous) microbes acquired from other hosts (as in Clostridium difficile colitis) or from the environment as a result of traumatic introduction (as in surgical wound infections or compound fractures). An opportunistic disease requires impairment of host defenses, which may occur as a result of genetic defects (such as Chronic granulomatous disease), exposure to antimicrobial drugs or immunosuppressive chemicals (as might occur following poisoning or cancer chemotherapy), exposure to ionizing radiation, or as a result of an infectious disease with immunosuppressive activity (such as with measles, malaria or HIV disease). Primary pathogens may also cause more severe disease in a host with depressed resistance than would normally occur in an immunosufficient host.
While a primary infection can practically be viewed as the root cause of an individual's current health problem, a secondary infection is a sequela or complication of that root cause. For example, an infection due to a burn or penetrating trauma (the root cause) is a secondary infection. Primary pathogens often cause primary infection and often cause secondary infection. Usually, opportunistic infections are viewed as secondary infections (because immunodeficiency or injury was the predisposing factor).
Other types of infection
Other types of infection consist of mixed, iatrogenic, nosocomial, and community-acquired infection. A mixed infection is an infection that is caused by two or more pathogens. An example of this is Appendicitis, which is caused by Bacteroides fragilis and Escherichia coli. The second is an iatrogenic infection. This type of infection is one that is transmitted from a health care worker to a patient. A nosocomial infection is also one that occurs in a health care setting. Nosocomial infections are those that are acquired during a hospital stay. Lastly, a community-acquired infection is one in which the infection is acquired from a whole community.
Infectious or not
One manner of proving that a given disease is infectious, is to satisfy Koch's postulates (first proposed by Robert Koch), which require that first, the infectious agent be identifiable only in patients who have the disease, and not in healthy controls, and second, that patients who contract the infectious agent also develop the disease. These postulates were first used in the discovery that Mycobacteria species cause tuberculosis.
However, Koch's postulates cannot usually be tested in modern practice for ethical reasons. Proving them would require experimental infection of a healthy individual with a pathogen produced as a pure culture. Conversely, even clearly infectious diseases do not always meet the infectious criteria; for example, Treponema pallidum, the causative spirochete of syphilis, cannot be cultured in vitro – however the organism can be cultured in rabbit testes. It is less clear that a pure culture comes from an animal source serving as host than it is when derived from microbes derived from plate culture.
Epidemiology, or the study and analysis of who, why and where disease occurs, and what determines whether various populations have a disease, is another important tool used to understand infectious disease. Epidemiologists may determine differences among groups within a population, such as whether certain age groups have a greater or lesser rate of infection; whether groups living in different neighborhoods are more likely to be infected; and by other factors, such as gender and race. Researchers also may assess whether a disease outbreak is sporadic, or just an occasional occurrence; endemic, with a steady level of regular cases occurring in a region; epidemic, with a fast arising, and unusually high number of cases in a region; or pandemic, which is a global epidemic. If the cause of the infectious disease is unknown, epidemiology can be used to assist with tracking down the sources of infection.
Infectious diseases are sometimes called contagious diseases when they are easily transmitted by contact with an ill person or their secretions (e.g., influenza). Thus, a contagious disease is a subset of infectious disease that is especially infective or easily transmitted. Other types of infectious, transmissible, or communicable diseases with more specialized routes of infection, such as vector transmission or sexual transmission, are usually not regarded as "contagious", and often do not require medical isolation (sometimes loosely called quarantine) of victims. However, this specialized connotation of the word "contagious" and "contagious disease" (easy transmissibility) is not always respected in popular use. Infectious diseases are commonly transmitted from person to person through direct contact. The types of contact are through person to person and droplet spread. Indirect contact such as airborne transmission, contaminated objects, food and drinking water, animal person contact, animal reservoirs, insect bites, and environmental reservoirs are another way infectious diseases are transmitted.
By anatomic location
Infections can be classified by the anatomic location or organ system infected, including:
- Urinary tract infection
- Skin infection
- Respiratory tract infection
- Odontogenic infection (an infection that originates within a tooth or in the closely surrounding tissues)
- Vaginal infections
- Intra-amniotic infection
Infection Classification articles: 68
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms of an infection depend on the type of disease. Some signs of infection affect the whole body generally, such as fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, fevers, night sweats, chills, aches and pains. Others are specific to individual body parts, such as skin rashes, coughing, or a runny nose.
In certain cases, infectious diseases may be asymptomatic for much or even all of their course in a given host. In the latter case, the disease may only be defined as a "disease" (which by definition means an illness) in hosts who secondarily become ill after contact with an asymptomatic carrier. An infection is not synonymous with an infectious disease, as some infections do not cause illness in a host.
As bacterial and viral infections can both cause the same kinds of symptoms, it can be difficult to distinguish which is the cause of a specific infection. Distinguishing the two is important, since viral infections cannot be cured by antibiotics whereas bacterial infections can.
|Characteristic||Viral infection||Bacterial infection|
|Typical symptoms||In general, viral infections are systemic. This means they involve many different parts of the body or more than one body system at the same time; i.e. a runny nose, sinus congestion, cough, body aches etc. They can be local at times as in viral conjunctivitis or "pink eye" and herpes. Only a few viral infections are painful, like herpes. The pain of viral infections is often described as itchy or burning.||The classic symptoms of a bacterial infection are localized redness, heat, swelling and pain. One of the hallmarks of a bacterial infection is local pain, pain that is in a specific part of the body. For example, if a cut occurs and is infected with bacteria, pain occurs at the site of the infection. Bacterial throat pain is often characterized by more pain on one side of the throat. An ear infection is more likely to be diagnosed as bacterial if the pain occurs in only one ear. A cut that produces pus and milky-colored liquid is most likely |
|Cause||Pathogenic viruses||Pathogenic bacteria|
Infection Signs and symptoms articles: 10
There is a general chain of events that applies to infections. The chain of events involves several steps – which include the infectious agent, reservoir, entering a susceptible host, exit and transmission to new hosts. Each of the links must be present in a chronological order for an infection to develop. Understanding these steps helps health care workers target the infection and prevent it from occurring in the first place.
Infection begins when an organism successfully enters the body, grows and multiplies. This is referred to as colonization. Most humans are not easily infected. Those with compromised or weakened immune systems have an increased susceptibility to chronic or persistent infections. Individuals who have a suppressed immune system are particularly susceptible to opportunistic infections. Entrance to the host at host-pathogen interface, generally occurs through the mucosa in orifices like the oral cavity, nose, eyes, genitalia, anus, or the microbe can enter through open wounds. While a few organisms can grow at the initial site of entry, many migrate and cause systemic infection in different organs. Some pathogens grow within the host cells (intracellular) whereas others grow freely in bodily fluids.
Wound colonization refers to non-replicating microorganisms within the wound, while in infected wounds, replicating organisms exist and tissue is injured. All multicellular organisms are colonized to some degree by extrinsic organisms, and the vast majority of these exist in either a mutualistic or commensal relationship with the host. An example of the former is the anaerobic bacteria species, which colonizes the mammalian colon, and an example of the latter are the various species of staphylococcus that exist on human skin. Neither of these colonizations are considered infections. The difference between an infection and a colonization is often only a matter of circumstance. Non-pathogenic organisms can become pathogenic given specific conditions, and even the most virulent organism requires certain circumstances to cause a compromising infection. Some colonizing bacteria, such as Corynebacteria sp. and viridans streptococci, prevent the adhesion and colonization of pathogenic bacteria and thus have a symbiotic relationship with the host, preventing infection and speeding wound healing.
The variables involved in the outcome of a host becoming inoculated by a pathogen and the ultimate outcome include:
- the route of entry of the pathogen and the access to host regions that it gains
- the intrinsic virulence of the particular organism
- the quantity or load of the initial inoculant
- the immune status of the host being colonized
As an example, several staphylococcal species remain harmless on the skin, but, when present in a normally sterile space, such as in the capsule of a joint or the peritoneum, multiply without resistance and cause harm.
An interesting fact that gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, 16S ribosomal RNA analysis, omics, and other advanced technologies have made more apparent to humans in recent decades is that microbial colonization is very common even in environments that humans think of as being nearly sterile. Because it is normal to have bacterial colonization, it is difficult to know which chronic wounds can be classified as infected and how much risk of progression exists. Despite the huge number of wounds seen in clinical practice, there are limited quality data for evaluated symptoms and signs. A review of chronic wounds in the Journal of the American Medical Association's "Rational Clinical Examination Series" quantified the importance of increased pain as an indicator of infection. The review showed that the most useful finding is an increase in the level of pain [likelihood ratio (LR) range, 11–20] makes infection much more likely, but the absence of pain (negative likelihood ratio range, 0.64–0.88) does not rule out infection (summary LR 0.64–0.88).
Disease can arise if the host's protective immune mechanisms are compromised and the organism inflicts damage on the host. Microorganisms can cause tissue damage by releasing a variety of toxins or destructive enzymes. For example, Clostridium tetani releases a toxin that paralyzes muscles, and staphylococcus releases toxins that produce shock and sepsis. Not all infectious agents cause disease in all hosts. For example, less than 5% of individuals infected with polio develop disease. On the other hand, some infectious agents are highly virulent. The prion causing mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease invariably kills all animals and people that are infected.
Persistent infections occur because the body is unable to clear the organism after the initial infection. Persistent infections are characterized by the continual presence of the infectious organism, often as latent infection with occasional recurrent relapses of active infection. There are some viruses that can maintain a persistent infection by infecting different cells of the body. Some viruses once acquired never leave the body. A typical example is the herpes virus, which tends to hide in nerves and become reactivated when specific circumstances arise.
Persistent infections cause millions of deaths globally each year. Chronic infections by parasites account for a high morbidity and mortality in many underdeveloped countries.
For infecting organisms to survive and repeat the infection cycle in other hosts, they (or their progeny) must leave an existing reservoir and cause infection elsewhere. Infection transmission can take place via many potential routes:
- Droplet contact, also known as the respiratory route, and the resultant infection can be termed airborne disease. If an infected person coughs or sneezes on another person the microorganisms, suspended in warm, moist droplets, may enter the body through the nose, mouth or eye surfaces.
- Fecal-oral transmission, wherein foodstuffs or water become contaminated (by people not washing their hands before preparing food, or untreated sewage being released into a drinking water supply) and the people who eat and drink them become infected. Common fecal-oral transmitted pathogens include Vibrio cholerae, Giardia species, rotaviruses, Entameba histolytica, Escherichia coli, and tape worms. Most of these pathogens cause gastroenteritis.
- Sexual transmission, with the resulting disease being called sexually transmitted disease
- Oral transmission, Diseases that are transmitted primarily by oral means may be caught through direct oral contact such as kissing, or by indirect contact such as by sharing a drinking glass or a cigarette.
- Transmission by direct contact, Some diseases that are transmissible by direct contact include athlete's foot, impetigo and warts
- Vehicle transmission, transmission by an inanimate reservoir (food, water, soil).
- Vertical transmission, directly from the mother to an embryo, fetus or baby during pregnancy or childbirth. It can occur as a result of a pre-existing infection or one acquired during pregnancy.
- Iatrogenic transmission, due to medical procedures such as injection or transplantation of infected material.
- Vector-borne transmission, transmitted by a vector, which is an organism that does not cause disease itself but that transmits infection by conveying pathogens from one host to another.
The relationship between virulence versus transmissibility is complex; if a disease is rapidly fatal, the host may die before the microbe can be passed along to another host.
Infection Pathophysiology articles: 57
Diagnosis of infectious disease sometimes involves identifying an infectious agent either directly or indirectly. In practice most minor infectious diseases such as warts, cutaneous abscesses, respiratory system infections and diarrheal diseases are diagnosed by their clinical presentation and treated without knowledge of the specific causative agent. Conclusions about the cause of the disease are based upon the likelihood that a patient came in contact with a particular agent, the presence of a microbe in a community, and other epidemiological considerations. Given sufficient effort, all known infectious agents can be specifically identified. The benefits of identification, however, are often greatly outweighed by the cost, as often there is no specific treatment, the cause is obvious, or the outcome of an infection is benign.
Diagnosis of infectious disease is nearly always initiated by medical history and physical examination. More detailed identification techniques involve the culture of infectious agents isolated from a patient. Culture allows identification of infectious organisms by examining their microscopic features, by detecting the presence of substances produced by pathogens, and by directly identifying an organism by its genotype. Other techniques (such as X-rays, CAT scans, PET scans or NMR) are used to produce images of internal abnormalities resulting from the growth of an infectious agent. The images are useful in detection of, for example, a bone abscess or a spongiform encephalopathy produced by a prion.
The diagnosis is aided by the presenting symptoms in any individual with an infectious disease, yet it usually needs additional diagnostic techniques to confirm the suspicion. Some signs are specifically characteristic and indicative of a disease and are called pathognomonic signs; but these are rare. Not all infections are symptomatic.
In children the presence of cyanosis, rapid breathing, poor peripheral perfusion, or a petechial rash increases the risk of a serious infection by greater than 5 fold. Other important indicators include parental concern, clinical instinct, and temperature greater than 40 °C.
Microbiological culture is a principal tool used to diagnose infectious disease. In a microbial culture, a growth medium is provided for a specific agent. A sample taken from potentially diseased tissue or fluid is then tested for the presence of an infectious agent able to grow within that medium. Most pathogenic bacteria are easily grown on nutrient agar, a form of solid medium that supplies carbohydrates and proteins necessary for growth of a bacterium, along with copious amounts of water. A single bacterium will grow into a visible mound on the surface of the plate called a colony, which may be separated from other colonies or melded together into a "lawn". The size, color, shape and form of a colony is characteristic of the bacterial species, its specific genetic makeup (its strain), and the environment that supports its growth. Other ingredients are often added to the plate to aid in identification. Plates may contain substances that permit the growth of some bacteria and not others, or that change color in response to certain bacteria and not others. Bacteriological plates such as these are commonly used in the clinical identification of infectious bacterium. Microbial culture may also be used in the identification of viruses: the medium, in this case, being cells grown in culture that the virus can infect, and then alter or kill. In the case of viral identification, a region of dead cells results from viral growth, and is called a "plaque". Eukaryotic parasites may also be grown in culture as a means of identifying a particular agent.
In the absence of suitable plate culture techniques, some microbes require culture within live animals. Bacteria such as Mycobacterium leprae and Treponema pallidum can be grown in animals, although serological and microscopic techniques make the use of live animals unnecessary. Viruses are also usually identified using alternatives to growth in culture or animals. Some viruses may be grown in embryonated eggs. Another useful identification method is Xenodiagnosis, or the use of a vector to support the growth of an infectious agent. Chagas disease is the most significant example, because it is difficult to directly demonstrate the presence of the causative agent, Trypanosoma cruzi in a patient, which therefore makes it difficult to definitively make a diagnosis. In this case, xenodiagnosis involves the use of the vector of the Chagas agent T. cruzi, an uninfected triatomine bug, which takes a blood meal from a person suspected of having been infected. The bug is later inspected for growth of T. cruzi within its gut.
Another principal tool in the diagnosis of infectious disease is microscopy. Virtually all of the culture techniques discussed above rely, at some point, on microscopic examination for definitive identification of the infectious agent. Microscopy may be carried out with simple instruments, such as the compound light microscope, or with instruments as complex as an electron microscope. Samples obtained from patients may be viewed directly under the light microscope, and can often rapidly lead to identification. Microscopy is often also used in conjunction with biochemical staining techniques, and can be made exquisitely specific when used in combination with antibody based techniques. For example, the use of antibodies made artificially fluorescent (fluorescently labeled antibodies) can be directed to bind to and identify a specific antigens present on a pathogen. A fluorescence microscope is then used to detect fluorescently labeled antibodies bound to internalized antigens within clinical samples or cultured cells. This technique is especially useful in the diagnosis of viral diseases, where the light microscope is incapable of identifying a virus directly.
Other microscopic procedures may also aid in identifying infectious agents. Almost all cells readily stain with a number of basic dyes due to the electrostatic attraction between negatively charged cellular molecules and the positive charge on the dye. A cell is normally transparent under a microscope, and using a stain increases the contrast of a cell with its background. Staining a cell with a dye such as Giemsa stain or crystal violet allows a microscopist to describe its size, shape, internal and external components and its associations with other cells. The response of bacteria to different staining procedures is used in the taxonomic classification of microbes as well. Two methods, the Gram stain and the acid-fast stain, are the standard approaches used to classify bacteria and to diagnosis of disease. The Gram stain identifies the bacterial groups Firmicutes and Actinobacteria, both of which contain many significant human pathogens. The acid-fast staining procedure identifies the Actinobacterial genera Mycobacterium and Nocardia.
Biochemical tests used in the identification of infectious agents include the detection of metabolic or enzymatic products characteristic of a particular infectious agent. Since bacteria ferment carbohydrates in patterns characteristic of their genus and species, the detection of fermentation products is commonly used in bacterial identification. Acids, alcohols and gases are usually detected in these tests when bacteria are grown in selective liquid or solid media.
The isolation of enzymes from infected tissue can also provide the basis of a biochemical diagnosis of an infectious disease. For example, humans can make neither RNA replicases nor reverse transcriptase, and the presence of these enzymes are characteristic., of specific types of viral infections. The ability of the viral protein hemagglutinin to bind red blood cells together into a detectable matrix may also be characterized as a biochemical test for viral infection, although strictly speaking hemagglutinin is not an enzyme and has no metabolic function.
Serological methods are highly sensitive, specific and often extremely rapid tests used to identify microorganisms. These tests are based upon the ability of an antibody to bind specifically to an antigen. The antigen, usually a protein or carbohydrate made by an infectious agent, is bound by the antibody. This binding then sets off a chain of events that can be visibly obvious in various ways, dependent upon the test. For example, "Strep throat" is often diagnosed within minutes, and is based on the appearance of antigens made by the causative agent, S. pyogenes, that is retrieved from a patient's throat with a cotton swab. Serological tests, if available, are usually the preferred route of identification, however the tests are costly to develop and the reagents used in the test often require refrigeration. Some serological methods are extremely costly, although when commonly used, such as with the "strep test", they can be inexpensive.
Complex serological techniques have been developed into what are known as Immunoassays. Immunoassays can use the basic antibody – antigen binding as the basis to produce an electro-magnetic or particle radiation signal, which can be detected by some form of instrumentation. Signal of unknowns can be compared to that of standards allowing quantitation of the target antigen. To aid in the diagnosis of infectious diseases, immunoassays can detect or measure antigens from either infectious agents or proteins generated by an infected organism in response to a foreign agent. For example, immunoassay A may detect the presence of a surface protein from a virus particle. Immunoassay B on the other hand may detect or measure antibodies produced by an organism's immune system that are made to neutralize and allow the destruction of the virus.
Instrumentation can be used to read extremely small signals created by secondary reactions linked to the antibody – antigen binding. Instrumentation can control sampling, reagent use, reaction times, signal detection, calculation of results, and data management to yield a cost-effective automated process for diagnosis of infectious disease.
Technologies based upon the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method will become nearly ubiquitous gold standards of diagnostics of the near future, for several reasons. First, the catalog of infectious agents has grown to the point that virtually all of the significant infectious agents of the human population have been identified. Second, an infectious agent must grow within the human body to cause disease; essentially it must amplify its own nucleic acids in order to cause a disease. This amplification of nucleic acid in infected tissue offers an opportunity to detect the infectious agent by using PCR. Third, the essential tools for directing PCR, primers, are derived from the genomes of infectious agents, and with time those genomes will be known, if they are not already.
Thus, the technological ability to detect any infectious agent rapidly and specifically are currently available. The only remaining blockades to the use of PCR as a standard tool of diagnosis are in its cost and application, neither of which is insurmountable. The diagnosis of a few diseases will not benefit from the development of PCR methods, such as some of the clostridial diseases (tetanus and botulism). These diseases are fundamentally biological poisonings by relatively small numbers of infectious bacteria that produce extremely potent neurotoxins. A significant proliferation of the infectious agent does not occur, this limits the ability of PCR to detect the presence of any bacteria.
Given the wide range of bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that cause debilitating and life-threatening illness, the ability to quickly identify the cause of infection is important yet often challenging. For example, more than half of cases of encephalitis, a severe illness affecting the brain, remain undiagnosed, despite extensive testing using state-of-the-art clinical laboratory methods. Metagenomics is currently being researched for clinical use, and shows promise as a sensitive and rapid way to diagnose infection using a single all-encompassing test. This test is similar to current PCR tests; however, amplification of genetic material is unbiased rather than using primers for a specific infectious agent. This amplification step is followed by next-generation sequencing and alignment comparisons using large databases of thousands of organismic and viral genomes.
Metagenomic sequencing could prove especially useful for diagnosis when the patient is immunocompromised. An ever-wider array of infectious agents can cause serious harm to individuals with immunosuppression, so clinical screening must often be broader. Additionally, the expression of symptoms is often atypical, making clinical diagnosis based on presentation more difficult. Thirdly, diagnostic methods that rely on the detection of antibodies are more likely to fail. A broad, sensitive test for pathogens that detects the presence of infectious material rather than antibodies is therefore highly desirable.
Indication of tests
There is usually an indication for a specific identification of an infectious agent only when such identification can aid in the treatment or prevention of the disease, or to advance knowledge of the course of an illness prior to the development of effective therapeutic or preventative measures. For example, in the early 1980s, prior to the appearance of AZT for the treatment of AIDS, the course of the disease was closely followed by monitoring the composition of patient blood samples, even though the outcome would not offer the patient any further treatment options. In part, these studies on the appearance of HIV in specific communities permitted the advancement of hypotheses as to the route of transmission of the virus. By understanding how the disease was transmitted, resources could be targeted to the communities at greatest risk in campaigns aimed at reducing the number of new infections. The specific serological diagnostic identification, and later genotypic or molecular identification, of HIV also enabled the development of hypotheses as to the temporal and geographical origins of the virus, as well as a myriad of other hypothesis. The development of molecular diagnostic tools have enabled physicians and researchers to monitor the efficacy of treatment with anti-retroviral drugs. Molecular diagnostics are now commonly used to identify HIV in healthy people long before the onset of illness and have been used to demonstrate the existence of people who are genetically resistant to HIV infection. Thus, while there still is no cure for AIDS, there is great therapeutic and predictive benefit to identifying the virus and monitoring the virus levels within the blood of infected individuals, both for the patient and for the community at large.