Preventing Deaths from Cryptococcal Meningitis


What is cryptococcal meningitis?

Cryptococcus neoformans is a fungus that lives in the environment throughout the world. Most people likely breathe in this microscopic fungus at some point in their lives but never get sick from it. However, in people with weakened immune systems, such as those living with HIV, Cryptococcus can stay hidden in the body and later cause a serious (but not contagious) brain infection called cryptococcal meningitis.

Why is cryptococcal meningitis a problem?

Worldwide, nearly 152,000 new cases of cryptococcal meningitis occur each year, resulting in an estimated 112,000 deaths. Most of the illness and deaths are estimated to occur in resource-limited countries, among people living with HIV. Improved access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) globally has helped improve the immune systems of many HIV patients so that they aren’t at increased risk of cryptococcal meningitis. However, cryptococcal meningitis is still a major problem where HIV prevalence is high and where access to healthcare may be limited.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Cryptococcal antigen, a biological marker that indicates a person has cryptococcal infection, can be detected in the body weeks before symptoms of meningitis appear. People who have advanced HIV infection should be tested for cryptococcal antigen. Patients who tests positive for cryptococcal antigen can take antifungal medication to help the body fight the early stage of the infection. This approach has been shown to reduce the chance of a patient developing cryptococcal meningitis.

Preventing cryptococcal meningitis:
  1. Cryptococcal antigen can be found in the body weeks before symptoms of meningitis.
  2. People with advanced HIV should be tested early for cryptococcal infection.
  3. Patients who test positive for cryptococcal antigen can take antifungal medicine.
  4. Antifungal medicine treats meningitis in those who have it, and can prevent meningitis in those who do not.
Graphic for steps to preventing cryptococcal meningitis

To screen people living with HIV for early cryptococcal infection and cryptococcal meningitis, healthcare facilities and laboratories must have access to the reliable tests. Currently, these tests are unavailable in many parts of the world. Improving access to these tests is a key step in reducing deaths from cryptococcal meningitis. Lateral flow assay is a reliable, rapid, and inexpensive test that can be used on a small sample of blood or spinal fluid to detect cryptococcal antigen. The test accurately detects cryptococcal infections more than 95% of the time. In addition, the test doesn’t require costly laboratory equipment and expertise, making it ideal for low-resource settings. To reduce mortality from cryptococcal infection, CD4 testing is also needed to identify patients with low CD4 counts, who are at highest risk for cryptococcal meningitis.

Amphotericin B, flucytosine, and fluconazole are antifungal medications shown to improve survival in patients with cryptococcal infections. These essential medications are often unavailable in areas of the world where they are most needed.

What CDC Is Doing

CDC supports various activities to reduce illness and death from cryptococcal meningitis including:

  • Working with health programs to introduce and implement cryptococcal screening and treatment
  • Helping health programs assess costs and impact of cryptococcal screening activities
  • Supporting training of clinical and laboratory staff on diagnosing, treating, and managing cryptococcal infection and cryptococcal meningitis
  • Collaborating with partners to improve access to cryptococcal diagnostics and antifungal drugs

CDC has developed training materials to help educate physicians, nurses, HIV/AIDS counselors, pharmacists, and patients about the diagnosis, management, and prevention of cryptococcal disease. These materials are intended to support cryptococcal screen-and-treat programs. CDC can also help provide customized resources on training and case studies for cryptococcal screening.

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