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Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) is a recognized cause of disease in the fetus, the allograft recipient and AIDS patients. More recently, it has been recognized as a pathogen for those admitted to intensive care units, for the elderly and for the general population. The epidemiology and molecular and cellular pathology of this virus are summarized to provide an overarching model of pathogenesis, able to account for these varying clinical presentations. In brief, HCMV has the potential to spread in the bloodstream to all organs, but only produces overt disease if the viral load increases to high levels. This is normally prevented by a robust immune response, so that the infected individual usually remains asymptomatic. However, this benefit comes at the cost of committing more and more immunological resources to controlling HCMV with time, so that the overall function of the immune system is impaired. Fortunately, recent progress in developing novel antiviral drugs and vaccines suggests the possibility that the diverse effects of HCMV may soon become controllable at the individual and population level, respectively.Copyright © 2014 Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.