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Haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis: Five years’ experience at tertiary hospitals in Free State Province, South Africa

M Nienkemper
J Malherbe
C Barrett


Background. Haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is a potentially life-threatening syndrome if not recognised and managed early. It involves an uncontrolled pathological activation of the immune system, and it is either genetic or acquired. It presents with clinical and laboratory features of severe inflammation. Early initiation of effective therapy may reduce mortality from 95% to 35%.
Objective. To raise awareness of HLH among healthcare professionals, particularly intensivists.
Methods. We report nine cases of secondary HLH seen at tertiary hospitals in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Results. All patients presented with fever, hypertriglyceridaemia, hyperferritinaemia, transaminitis and cytopenia. Haemophagocytosis was noted on bone marrow biopsy in 66.7% (n=6/9) of the patients. More than one-third (44.4%; n=4/9) of the cases were triggered by a lymphoma, 44% (n=4/9) were associated with infection and 11% (n=1/9) were associated HIV. Finally, 11.1% (n=1) of the patients were triggered by an underlying autoimmune disease. More than half (55.6%; n=5/9) of the cases had a fatal outcome.
Conclusion. A high index of suspicion may promote the accurate diagnosis of HLH in patients presenting with fever, transaminitis and unexplained cytopenia.