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Open Access Research article

Lymph node hemophagocytosis in rickettsial diseases: a pathogenetic role for CD8 T lymphocytes in human monocytic ehrlichiosis (HME)?

Kerry L Dierberg and J Stephen Dumler*

Author Affiliations

Division of Medical Microbiology, Department of Pathology, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

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BMC Infectious Diseases 2006, 6:121  doi:10.1186/1471-2334-6-121

Published: 21 July 2006



Human monocytic ehrlichiosis (HME) and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) are caused by Ehrlichia chaffeensis and Rickettsia rickettsii, respectively. The pathogenesis of RMSF relates to rickettsia-mediated vascular injury, but it is unclear in HME.


To study histopathologic responses in the lymphatic system for correlates of immune injury, lymph nodes from patients with HME (n = 6) and RMSF (n = 5) were examined. H&E-stained lymph node tissues were examined for five histopathologic features, including hemophagocytosis, cellularity, necrosis, and vascular congestion and edema. The relative proportions of CD68 macrophages, CD8 and CD4 T lymphocytes, and CD20 B lymphocytes were evaluated by immunohistochemical staining.


Hemophagocytosis was similar in HME and RMSF, and was greater than in control cases (p = .015). Cellularity in HME was not different from controls, whereas RMSF lymph nodes were markedly less cellular (p < 0.002). E. chaffeensis-infected mononuclear phagocytes were infrequent compared to R. rickettsii-infected endothelial cells. More CD8 cells in lymph nodes were observed with HME (p < .001), but no quantitative differences in CD4 lymphocytes, macrophages, or B lymphocytes were identified.


Hemophagocytosis, CD8 T cell expansion, and the paucity of infected cells in HME, suggest that E. chaffeensis infection leads to macrophage activation and immune-mediated injury.