Symptomatic primary Epstein-Barr virus infection is a usually self-limiting illness in adolescents. We present a case of an adolescent who had been receiving azathioprine for inflammatory bowel disease for four years and developed a life-threatening primary Epstein-Barr virus infection successfully treated with rituximab.
An 11-year-old girl presented with chronic, bloody diarrhea. Endoscopic biopsies confirmed a diagnosis of chronic ulcerative colitis with features of Crohn’s disease. Azathioprine was initiated after one year due to active colitis. She responded well and remission was achieved. At the age of 16 years she developed a life-threatening Epstein-Barr virus infection including severe multiple organ failure and was critically ill for 4 weeks in the intensive care unit. Natural killer cells were virtually absent in the lymphocyte subset analysis. Azathioprine was stopped on admission. She was initially treated with corticosteroids, acyclovir and intravenous immunoglobulin. Approximately 30 days after admission, she developed signs of severe hepatitis and pneumonitis and received weekly rituximab infusions for 8 weeks. Primary immunodeficiency was excluded by whole exome sequencing in two independent laboratories. Persistent viremia stopped when the natural killer cell count started to rise, approximately 90 days after the cessation of azathioprine.