How to use … the Monospot and other heterophile antibody tests

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Abstract

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a highly prevalent virus, transmitted via saliva, which often causes asymptomatic infection in children but frequently results in infectious mononucleosis in adolescents. Heterophile antibody tests, including the Monospot test, are red cell or latex agglutination assays, which detect antired cell antibodies produced as part of a polyclonal antibody response occurring during EBV infection. Heterophile antibody tests are rapid, cheap and specific tests that can be performed from the onset of symptoms of infectious mononucleosis. In adolescents, heterophile antibody tests have high specificity and sensitivity in the diagnosis of primary acute EBV infection. However, the tests have low sensitivity and low negative predictive value in young children and are not useful under the age of 4. Heterophile tests may be positive in other viral infections, autoimmune disease and haematological malignancies, but do not appear to be positive in primary bacterial infection. Virus-specific serology is required in children under the age of 4 or if an older child is heterophile negative. Virus-specific serology allows diagnosis and the pattern of positivity and negativity enables the clinician to stage the EBV infection. Virus-specific serology appears to have better sensitivity in young children, but there is cross-reaction with other herpesvirus infections, a longer turnaround time and it is more expensive to perform. Further research is needed to establish which children benefit from and hence require testing for heterophile antibodies, the cost-effectiveness of EBV investigations and whether heterophile titres have predictive value for the severity of infection and the likelihood of complications.

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