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Volume 2, Number 4—October 1996


Epidemic Zoster and AIDS

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EID Morens DM, Agarwal A, Sarkar S, Panda S, Detels R. Epidemic Zoster and AIDS. Emerg Infect Dis. 1996;2(4):361-362.
AMA Morens DM, Agarwal A, Sarkar S, et al. Epidemic Zoster and AIDS. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 1996;2(4):361-362. doi:10.3201/eid0204.960417.
APA Morens, D. M., Agarwal, A., Sarkar, S., Panda, S., & Detels, R. (1996). Epidemic Zoster and AIDS. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2(4), 361-362.

To the Editor: Zoster (exogenously reactivated varicella-zoster virus infection) may seem an unlikely candidate for emergence and epidemicity. A recent report, however, describes a zoster outbreak associated with epidemic HIV in injecting drug users in Manipur State, India (1). In addition to underscoring the variety of ways in which "old" diseases may reemerge under complex bio-ecologic conditions, this outbreak may also have implications for anticipating and diagnosing HIV infections and AIDS in developing countries. The Manipur outbreak was associated with a doubling of zoster frequency above background levels, with increased occurrence most notable in males 12-44 years old, who also had the highest HIV prevalence. In a separately studied group of 120 injecting drug users, 20 developed zoster and all were found to be HIV positive (1), a correlation substantially greater than for such other clinical predicters of HIV infection as persistent lymphadenopathy, weight loss, or recurrent dermatoses. Increased zoster occurrence associated with HIV transmission has also been seen in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly in injecting drug using populations (unpublished). Zoster as a sentinel indicator of community HIV transmission is also suggested by reports from Africa (2).

For over 150 years, it was believed that zoster occurred in local epidemics (3,4). By the 1950s, however, it was generally agreed that zoster represented reactivation of latent gangliar varicella virus either sporadically, or in response to immunosuppression or trauma. Epidemics of "endogenous" immunosuppression, such as those associated with epidemic HIV infection, might thus be expected to produce outbreaks of zoster, as seems to have occurred in Manipur and Vietnam. In the Indian outbreak traumatic zoster seemed unlikely: truncal and facial dermatomes predominated, rather than dermatomes corresponding to drug injection sites (usually the hands or legs). Recognition of zoster outbreaks may be important in developing countries where HIV diagnosis is limited, CD4 cell counts are unavailable, and diagnosis of AIDS is delayed. Zoster is not currently accepted as an AIDS-defining condition (5), and the extent to which it may reflect immune collapse or predict HIV disease progression is uncertain. Nevertheless, greater awareness of zoster as a sentinel indicator of community HIV transmission may be of help not only in clinical diagnosis, but also in public health efforts to recognize epidemic HIV occurrence.

D. M. Morens*, A.K. Agarwal†, S. Sarkar†, S. Panda†, and R. Detels‡

Author affiliations: *University of Hawaii School of Medicine, Honolulu, Hawaii; †ICMR Unit for Research on AIDS in Northeastern States of India, Calcutta, India; and ‡University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California


  1. Panda S, Sarkar S, Mandal BK, Singh TBK, Lokendra Singh K, Mitra DK, Epidemic of herpes zoster following HIV epidemic in Manipur, India. J Infect. 1994;28:16773. DOIPubMed
  2. Tyndall MW, Nasio J, Agoki E, Malisa W, Ronald AR, Ndinya-Achola JO, Herpes zoster as the initial presentation of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 infection in Kenya. Clin Infect Dis. 1995;21:10357.PubMed
  3. Simon L. Questions sur diverses branches des sciences médicales. Thèse 202. Paris: Rignoux, 1840.
  4. Kaposi M. Bemerkungen über die jüngste Zoster-Epidemie und zur Aetiologie des Zoster. Wien Med Wochenschr 1889;25:961-4, 26:1001-4.
  5. World Health Organization. Interim proposal for a WHO staging system for HIV infection and diseases. Wkly Epidemiol Rec. 1990;65:2214.PubMed
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DOI: 10.3201/eid0204.960417

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Table of Contents – Volume 2, Number 4—October 1996