Candidiasis in Solid Organ Transplantation

Authors: Luis Espinosa-Aguilar, Graeme N. Forrest


Despite the major advances in prolonging allograft and recipient survival, Candida sp. remain one of the most common causes of fungal infections in solid organ transplant recipients, and is associated with significant early morbidity and mortality after transplantation (18).

Epidemiology and Risk Factors

The incidence of invasive mycoses following SOT ranges from 5% to 42 % with the most common fungi being Candida and Aspergillus (55). Candida is the most common cause of invasive fungal infection in liver, pancreas, renal and small bowel transplant recipients while aspergillosis is higher in heart and lung transplant recipients (26). Renal transplant recipients have the lowest incidence of invasive fungal infections and small bowel transplant have the highest risk. Candida represents the most common cause of fungal infection in the early period after transplant (24) (Figure 1). Mortality from invasive Candida infections ranges from 11-81% in the solid organ transplant population (56) (Table 1) and this is even higher if the patient is located in an intensive care unit (44, 49).

Liver Transplant

Liver transplant recipients as described are high risk for invasive candidiasis which accounts for more than 90% of invasive fungal infections in liver transplant recipients. The major risk factors in these patients are related to technical complexity of the surgery, prolonged operation time, multiple blood transfusions, cold ischemic time of the donor organ and the use of Roux-en-Y biliary anastomosis (7, 39).

Other major risk factors that have been identified include re-transplantation, post-transplantation dialysis, antibiotic prophylaxis for spontaneous bacterial peritonitis, encephalopathy and postoperative bacterial infection (22, 53).

Pancreas Transplant and Small Bowel Transplant

Pancreas transplant recipients also have high rates on invasive Candida infections, ranging from 6-38%. Intra-abdominal abscesses and deep wound or surgical site infections have been documented at around 7-14% of pancreas transplant recipients. Risk factors in these patients include donor age, enteric versus bladder drainage, pancreas after kidney transplantation, preoperative peritoneal dialysis, and pancreatic re-transplantation (4,30). The incidence of candidiasis in small bowel transplant recipients ranges form 28-55%. It is related to disruption in the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract (anastomotic leak), requirement of increased immunosuppression and high incidence of CMV infection.

Renal and Lung Transplants

Candidiasis in renal transplant recipients represents 76-95% of fungal infections in this group and is mostly confined to the genitourinary tract with disseminated infection occurring in fewer than 5%. Risk factors for fungal infections in these patients are diabetes, prolonged pre-transplant dialysis and rejection (24). Lung transplant recipients are frequently colonized with Candida and the use of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation in the post transplant period is associated with a higher rate of candidiasis. A recently published study including 1305 thoracic organ transplant recipients, between 1980 and 2004, identified 76 episodes of invasive candidiasis with an overall incidence of 5.2%. Incidence was higher in lung and lung-heart transplant compared to heart transplant recipients. The incidence and attributable mortality from invasive candidiasis decreased over time in all thoracic organ transplant recipients (50).

Candida Species

Candida albicans remains the most frequent species associated with infection despite widespread usage of fluconazole for over 15 years (61). However, Candida glabrata and Candida tropicalis have emerged as major causative pathogens in the transplant recipient (54). There are multiple other species that can be obtained from transplant recipients such as: C. parapsilosis, C. krusei, C. lusitaniae, C. rugosa, C. kefyr and C. guillermondi. In a large database analysis which included 2019 patients with candidemia, C. glabrata was the organism most associated with infection of solid organ transplant recipients and the incidence of candidemia caused by non-Candida albicans species (54.4%) was greater than infections caused by C. albicans (45.6%) (20). The increased frequency of non-C. albicans isolates could be explained because of: widespread use of fluconazole in the pre and post-transplant period, prolonged pre-transplant hospitalization and use of broad spectrum antibiotics (20).

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Candida infections are derived from endogenous flora. Colonization with Candida sp. is more frequent among transplant patients compared to non-transplant patients (9). Conditions that predispose colonization or overgrowth of the hepatobiliary, gastrointestinal and genitourinary tract can facilitate fungemia and dissemination, especially with mucosal injury or bleeding during surgical manipulation. Translocation across the gut mucosa, manipulation of the gastrointestinal tract and impaired hepatic reticuloendothelial function are predisposing factors (18). In pancreas transplant recipients who have bladder drainage, urinary colonization pre-transplantation because of diabetes and liberation of digestive enzymes into the surgical site predispose to invasive candidiasis (30). Candida can enter the bloodstream by direct penetration from the epithelium after tissue damage, or by dissemination from biofilms formed on medical devices introduced into the patient’s organism (catheters, endoprotheses, artificial joints or central nervous system shunts) (18, 55). Candida albicans main virulence factors are hydrolytic enzymes, adhesions and ability to form biofilms (25). Immunomodulatory and immunosuppressive viruses, like CMV and HHV-6, facilitate superinfections with opportunistic fungi. Production of suppressive cytokines that alter lymphocyte and macrophage function is the mechanism responsible. HHV-6 also decreases immunologic response from CD4+ and CD8+ lymphocytes. Immunosuppressive therapy, especially with corticosteroids is a major risk factor for invasive candidiasis (22, 39, 55). Use of Alemtuzumab for treatment of acute graft rejection, conferred and increased risk of invasive fungal infections, mostly esophageal candidiasis within 3 months after the start of therapy (40).

Clinical Presentation

Mucosal Disease

Mucosal candida infection is the most common clinical presentation in patients with solid organ transplant, especially oral candidiasis, but the predominant site of involvement varies with the type of organ transplantation. Candida esophagitis is also common and is characterized by dysphagia, odynophagia and chest pain (24). Oral candidiasis is very common in organ transplant recipients and is greater in the first month after transplantation, however can be present for many months later (9, 24). There may be also be a close correlation with the presence of underlying cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection, or this may reflect the depth of immunosuppression with the two organisms closely tied together (35). Mostly, Candida superficially coats the orophaynx, however on rare occasions oral Candida may cause severe erosive lesions without underlying herpes virus infections (47). Oral thrush may be present in only 43% of cases of esophageal candidiasis and 21.4% of patients may be asymptomatic while 54% will have dysphagia (16). Vaginal candidiasis may also be increased in female organ transplant recipients and is frequently missed without regular screening (2).

Urinary Disease

Candiduria occurs frequently in renal transplant recipients and could represent colonization but may also be a sign of disseminated infection and has been associated with reduced survival rates, but may reflect underlying severity of disease. Pyelonephritis and fungal ball formation within the genitourinary system are other potential complications. In a review of candiduria in renal transplant recipients most were asymptomatic and C. glabrata occurred in 51% of cases (48). Predictors identified for candiduria were female gender, intensive care unit admission, and antibiotic use in prior month, urinary catheter, diabetes and neurogenic bladder. They noted that treatment did not improve clearance or outcomes in this population (48). There is very little supporting data with other organ transplant recipients on whether candiduria is more than a colonizer, but should be evaluated as to whether it is part of systemic disease in all of these patients (17, 24, 64). 

Intra-abdominal Disease

In liver transplant patients common presentations of invasive candidiasis are: intra-abdominal abscesses, wound infections, peritonitis and candidemia (23, 64). Peritonitis is also common in pancreas transplant recipients, secondary to manipulation of the intestines and biliary tree (55). Most of these infections occur due to post-operative anastomotic leaks and ensuring mucosal integrity can reduce these complications.

Candidemia and Other Invasive Disease

In the U.S, Candida is considered the fourth most common cause of nosocomial bloodstream infection, with an attributable mortality close to 40% (66). Candidemia is frequently related to the presence of central venous catheters, followed by translocation from a gastro-intestinal source (24, 55). A review of 2935 SOT transplant patients with bloodstream infections between 2003 and 2005, found that Candida was responsible for 4% of all bloodstream infections in this population, being more frequent on lung transplants (18%) and less frequent on heart transplants (3%) (34). Excluding coagulase negative staphylococci, Candida was the 7th most common organism isolated from blood cultures in their study (34). Candidemia is a common problem after small bowel transplantation (15). A sepsis syndrome that fails to respond to treatment may accompany disseminated disease (24). Secondary effects of candidemia that should be evaluated in organ transplant recipients, especially when there are persistently positive cultures include endophthalmitis, endocarditis, meningitis and septic arthritis (6, 32, 36, 43, 45, 62).


Lung and heart-lung transplant recipients could have tracheobronchitis to pneumonitis, less frequently anastomotic dehiscence, mediastinitis and mycotic aneurysm. In lung transplant recipients, Candida isolated from the donor lung bronchial segment should be monitored as can lead to fungal tracheobronchitis or anastomotic infection or dehiscence if left untreated (21). Candida pneumonia is a rare entity and diagnosis is difficult as obtaining a sputum culture without evidence of invasion frequently reflects oropharyngeal colonization (14, 21, 41).


Distinguishing Candida colonization from infection in solid organ transplant recipients is difficult. With colonization frequent in this population the progression to infection while on immunosuppression, or from their prior debility from underlying illness can increase the risk of invasive infection (22, 26, 50, 55, 64). The same risk factors associated with invasive disease are associated with Candida colonization in both the donor and the recipient, especially with small bowel, liver, lung and lastly kidney (24). The presence of Candida in sterile sites (i.e. blood, cerebrospinal and vitreal fluid) is clearly infection, while its presence in post-surgical specimens is less clear, especially with the presence of drains (38). For non sterile specimens, useful criteria for defining whether there is infection or colonization with Candida include: 1) a compatible process that explains the hosts present clinical condition, 2) histopathologic evidence of tissue damage and/or inflammation in non-sterile areas, 3) radiological findings consistent with the process (1, 19, 38). With the increased incidence of non-C. albicans infections causing candidemia in this population, the use of rapid identification with polymerase chain reaction or peptide nucleic acid fluorescence in situ hybridization (PNA FISH) probes could assist in appropriate targeted therapy (33, 46, 52). Both have rapid turnaround in a couple of hours, with PNA FISH able to identify the five most common Candida species (46).

Antifungal Prophylaxis, Pre-emption or Prevention

Antifungal prophylaxis in organ transplant recipients is controversial, with most studies having numerous limitations and a standardized approach to antifungal prophylaxis for these patients does not exist (56). A meta analysis of 1497 SOT patients showed that antifungal prophylaxis did not reduce mortality (42). Some centers use antifungal prophylaxis for mucocutaneous candidiasis but this approach has not been based on documented evidence. Oral prophylaxis with non-absorbable antifungal agents has shown inconsistent results. A recently published meta analysis regarding use of nystatin as prophylaxis for invasive fungal infections in immunosuppressed patients (including patients with liver transplant) didn’t demonstrate any benefit compared to placebo and was inferior compared to fluconazole prophylaxis (13). The risk of invasive candidiasis in renal or heart transplant recipients is too low to require prophylaxis.

Liver transplant recipients with at least 2 risk factors, including re-transplantation, creatinine greater then 2mg/dl, choledochojejunostomy, prolonged intraoperative time, intraoperative use of more 40 U of blood products and fungal colonization detected at least 2 days before and 3 days after transplantation have been identified as being at high risk for invasive candidiasis and antifungal prophylaxis is recommended (37).  A meta-analysis of 10 trials with 1106 liver transplant patients demonstrated that fluconazole reduced invasive fungal infections in approximately 75%, but didn’t show any reduction in mortality. Fluconazole prophylaxis also did not significantly increase colonization or infection with azole resistant fungi (42).  A randomized trial on 212 liver transplant recipients that compared fluconazole (400 mg/day for 10 weeks) against placebo, revealed reduced fungal colonization and fungal infection (superficial and invasive infection) by most Candida species, except C.glabrata. Overall mortality rates were again similar but fewer deaths related to invasive fungal infection were seen in the fluconazole group than in the placebo group (65). Another study comparing fluconazole (100 mg/day for 4 weeks) to oral nystatin showed that fluconazole reduced Candida colonization and superficial infections, and trended towards a reduction of invasive fungal infections (29). A randomized trial using itraconazole decreased the rate of invasive fungal infection from 24% to 4% in liver transplant recipients (51). A prospective, non-comparative, open-label trial on antifungal prophylaxis with caspofungin (21 days of prophylaxis) in 71 high risk liver transplant patients, showed that only two patients experienced an invasive fungal infections (Mucor and Candida surgical wounds infection). The overall incidence of documented invasive fungal infection was 2.8. Overall 8 patients (11%) died during the study period and no death was attributable to an invasive fungal infection or caspofungin prophylaxis (12). A survey of 106 liver transplant centers in North America using an electronic questionnaire reported of the sites that responded (63%) 91% used routine antifungal prophylaxis, 28% universal prophylaxis and 72 % targeted high risk patients with fluconazole being the most commonly used agent (57). A retrospective study in pancreas transplantation recipients revealed a 6% frequency of intra-abdominal fungal infection in patients who received fluconazole (400mg/day for 7 days) compared to a 10% frequency for those who did not receive fluconazole prophylaxis (p=not significant). There are no randomized trials of antifungal prophylaxis among small bowel transplant recipients, but the risk for invasive Candida infection is high and most experts recommend the use of antifungal prophylaxis. The current Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) guidelines on Candida treatment recommends use of fluconazole at a dosage of 200-400 mg daily or a lipid formulation of Amphotericin B at a dosage of 1-2 mg/kg daily , each at least for 7-14 days, is recommended as postoperative prophylaxis for pancreas, small bowel and high risk liver transplant recipients (38) (Table 2).


Mucosal candidiasis, Oropharyngeal candidiasis, can be treated with clotrimazole troche (5 x days). Also nystatin suspension, fluconazole or itraconazole are alternatives. Vulvovaginal candidiasis can be treated with several topical antifungal agents that are effective for most not complicated cases. Also a single dose of 150 mg of fluconazole is effective. For esophageal candidiasis, oral fluconazole is the preferred agent for 14-21 days, however in patients with prior fluconazole exposure or known fluconazole resistance, an echinocandin should be used. Posaconazole orally at 400 mg twice a day for 28 days appears to be promising in resistant patients (38).

Urinary Candidiasis

Treatment of choice for urinary candidiasis, proven cystitis and pyelonephritis, is with oral fluconazole. It is primarily excreted in urine and achieves excellent urine levels with a recommended duration of treatment of 2 weeks. In the case of fluconazole resistance or clinical failure, uses of systemic amphotericin B or oral flucytosine are alternatives, but they are limited because of toxicity and development of resistance in the case of flucytosine (38, 63).  Reports of successful use of echinocandins have been documented in small series of patients (28, 58), but these agents are not currently recommended because of poor urinary concentrations and limited clinical data. Removing an indwelling catheter is also part of the treatment and imaging of the kidneys to exclude abscess or a fungus ball is prudent.

Disseminated Candidiasis

For treatment of candidemia or invasive candidiasis the IDSA guidelines recommend initial treatment with fluconazole or and echinocandin. In patients with moderately severe to severe illness or recent azole exposure the recommendation is to use an echinocandin empirically until Candida sp. identification (3, 38).  Transition from an echinocandin to fluconazole is recommended for patients who have isolates that are likely to be susceptible to fluconazole and are clinically stable. Amphotericin B deoxycholate or a lipid formulation of amphotericin B (AmB) are alternatives if there is intolerance to or limited availability of other antifungal (27, 38).  Voriconazole is effective but it offers little advantage over fluconazole and is recommended as stepdown to oral therapy for selected cases of candidiasis due to C. krusei or voriconazole susceptible C. glabrata. For infection due to C. glabrata an echinocandin is preferred and for infection due to C. parapsilosis treatment with fluconazole is recommended. The duration varies related to the site of infection. For candidemia the recommended duration is for 2 weeks after documented clearance and resolution of symptoms. Also the removal of central intravenous catheters is strongly recommended. All patients with candidemia should have a retinal examination, preferably performed by an ophthalmologist within a week of first culture. Candida endophthalmitis is treated with an amphotericin B formulation combined with flucytosine for advancing lesions or fluconazole could be used for less severe cases. The recommended duration of therapy is at least 4 to 6 weeks (10). For Candida endocarditis, valve replacement and treatment with a lipid amphotericin B product with flucytosine or an echinocandin is recommended and treatment should continue for at least 6 weeks after valve surgery (59). For patients who cannot undergo valve replacement long term suppression with fluconazole is recommended (38).

Drug Toxicity and Drug Interactions

In general antifungals are associated with diverse types of toxicities, most commonly hepatic, renal, hematologic, electrolyte abnormalities and infusion related. Each class is associated with a set of unique adverse events. Amphotericin B preparations are related to nephrotoxicity and infusion related reactions and the azoles are more closely related to liver toxicities (8).

After initiation of azoles in solid organ transplant recipients, close monitoring of their immunosuppressive agents will be required. Azole antifungal agents are substrate and inhibitors of cytochrome P450 enzymes. Fluconazole and voriconazole increase levels of cyclosporine and tacrolimus. As voriconazole increases the levels of sirolimus ≥ 100% it is recommended to avoid simultaneous use (5).  Also, after discontinuation of azole therapy, dose adjustment of immunosuppressive therapy is required to prevent rejection. The echinocandins are very safe with solid organ transplantation, however caspofungin has some minor interactions that require dosing adjustments, however micafungin appears to be safe and effective, but sirolimus monitoring is recommended (11, 60).  Hepatic enzymes monitoring with the echinocandins, especially in liver transplantation (31).

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52. Shepard JR, Addison RM, Alexander BD, Della-Latta P, Gherna M, Haase G, Hall G, Johnson JK, Merz WG, Peltroche-Llacsahuanga H, Stender H, Venezia RA, Wilson D, Procop GW, Wu F, Fiandaca MJ.  Multicenter evaluation of the Candida albicans/Candida glabrata peptide nucleic acid fluorescent in situ hybridization method for simultaneous dual-color identification of C. albicans and C. glabrata directly from blood culture bottles. J Clin Microbiol. 2008; 46:50-55. [PubMed] 

53. Shi SH, Lu AW, Shen Y, Jia CK, Wang WL, Xie HY, Zhang M, Liang TB, Zheng SS. Spectrum and risk factors for invasive candidiasis and non-Candida fungal infections after liver transplantation. Chin Med.J 2008; 121:625-630. [PubMed] 

54. Silveira FP, Husain S. Fungal infections in solid organ transplantation. Med Mycol. 2007; 45:305-320. [PubMed] 

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56. Singh N. Antifungal prophylaxis in solid-organ transplant recipients: considerations for clinical trial design. Clin Infect Dis. 2004; 39 Suppl 4:S200-S206. [PubMed] 

57. Singh N, Wagener MM, Cacciarelli TV, Levitsky J. Antifungal management practices in liver transplant recipients. Am J Transplant 2008; 8:426-431. [PubMed] 

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Figure 1: Timeline for Onset of Fungal Infections


Figure adapted from Infectious Diseases Guidelines, Am J Transplant (24)


Table 1. Incidence of Candidiasis per Organ Transplant

Type of transplant Incidence of invasive fungal infection Proportion of IFI caused by Candida Most common fungal infection
Renal 0-20% 76-95% Candida
Liver 5-42% 62-91% Candida
Pancreas 10-40% > 90% Candida
Heart 5-20% 8-25% Aspergillus
Lung 15-35% 43-72% Candida/Aspergillus
Small bowel 40-59% 80-100% Candida

Derived from Cited References:  (24,49,54,55)


Table 2. Prophylaxis Recommendations Against Candida Infections in Solid Organ Transplantation 

Type of transplant First line Alternatives Duration
Liver * Fluconazole 200-400 mg/day Echinocandin ± or LAmb 2-4 weeks
Pancreas Fluconazole 200-400 mg/day LAmb# 2-4 weeks
Small bowel Fluconazole 200-400 mg/day LAmb 2-4 weeks

* high risk: retransplantation, creatinine greater then 2mg/dl, choledochojejunostomy, prolonged intraoperative time,    intraoperative use of more 40 U of blood products and fungal colonization (37).

± Echinocandin depends on hospital formulary and all are intravenously given: Caspofungin at 70 mg load then 50 mg daily or micafungin 100 mg daily have most clinical information (11, 12, 57)

#  Lamb = lipid formulation of amphotericin B. Doses recommended are 3-5 mg/kg.


What's New?

Zaoutis T. et al. A Prospective, Multicenter Study of Caspofungin for the Treatment of Documented Candida or Aspergillus Infections in Pediatric Patients. PEDIATRICS. 2009 Mar;123(3):877-84.

Sceinfeld, NS. Skin Disorders in Elderly Persons: Identifying Fungal Infections. Infect Med. 2007:509-515

Oliveri S, et al. Experience with the Platelia Candida ELISA for the diagnosis of invasive candidosis in neonatal patients.Clin Microbiol Infect. 2008 Apr;14(4):391-3. Epub 2008 Jan 11.

Harrington A. Differentiation of Candida albicans from non-albicans yeast directly from blood cultures by Gram stain morphology. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis 2007;26:325-329.

Colombo AL, et al.  Caspofungin Use in Patients with Invasive Candidiasis caused by Common Non-albicans Candida Species: Review of the Caspofungin Database.  Antimicrob Agents Chemother 2010;Mar 15 [Epub ahead of print]

Betts RF, Nucci M, et al. A Multicenter, Double-Blind Trial of a High-Dose Caspofungin Treatment Regimen versus a standard Caspofungin Treatment Regimen for Adult Patients with Invasive Candidiasis. Clin Inf Dis. 2009;48:1676-84.

Pappas PG, et al.  Micafungin versus caspofungin for treatment of candidemia and other forms of invasive candidiasis. Clin Infect Dis 2007;45:883-893.

Zaoutis T. et al. A Prospective, Multicenter Study of Caspofungin for the Treatment of Documented Candida or Aspergillus Infections in Pediatric Patients. PEDIATRICS. 2009 Mar;123(3):877-84.

Hamza et al. Single-Dose Fluconazole versus Standard Therapy for Oropharyngeal Candidiasis in HIV-Infected Patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Double-Dummy Trial. Clin Infect Dis. 2008 Nov 15;47(10):1270-6.

Betts RF, Nucci M, et al. A Multicenter, Double-Blind Trial of a High-Dose Caspofungin Treatment Regimen versus a standard Caspofungin Treatment Regimen for Adult Patients with Invasive Candidiasis. Clin Inf Dis. 2009;48:1676-84.

Legrand F, et al. Adjuvant corticosteroid therapy for chronic disseminated candidiasis. Clin Infect Dis. 2008;46:696-702.

Zaoutis T. et al. A Prospective, Multicenter Study of Caspofungin for the Treatment of Documented Candida or Aspergillus Infections in Pediatric Patients. PEDIATRICS. 2009 Mar;123(3):877-84.

Ruan SY, Lee LN, et al. Candida glabrata fungaemia in intensive care units. Clin Microbiol Infect 2007 Nov 28 [Epub ahead of print].

Sun RL, et al.  Clinical characteristics and outcome of Candida keratitis.  Am J Ophthalmol 2007;143:1043-1045.

Van Hal et al. Candida dubliniensis Meningitis as Delayed Sequela of Treated C. dubliniensis Fungemia. Emerg Infect Dis. 2008 February; 14(2): 327–329.

Hamza et al. Single-Dose Fluconazole versus Standard Therapy for Oropharyngeal Candidiasis in HIV-Infected Patients: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Double-Dummy Trial. Clin Infect Dis. 2008 Nov 15;47(10):1270-6.



Clinical Manifestations


Laboratory Diagnosis



Review Articles

Rex JH.Sobel JD., Powderly W. Candida species

Baron EJ. Yeast

Guidelines for the use of antifungal agents in patients with invasive fungal infections in Taiwan. J Microbiol Immunol Infect. 2006 Dec;39(6):523-5.

Schaudin C, Stoodley P, Kainovic' A, O'Keeffe T, Costerton B, Robinson D, Baum M, Ehrlich G, Webster P.  Bacterial Biofilms, Other Structures Seen as Mainstream Concepts.  Microbe 2007;2:231-237.

Pappas PG, et al.  Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Management of Candidiasis: 2009 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.  Clin Infect Dis 2009;48:503-535.

Singh N, Treatment of opportunistic mycoses: how long is long enough? Lancet Infect Dis 2003;3:703-08.

Raad, I., Hanna, H. and Maki, D. Intravascular Catheter-related Infections: Advances in Diagnosis, Prevention and Management. The LANCET Infectious Diseases 2007; Vol.7, Issue 10, 645-657.



Clinical Manifestations