Western equine encephalitis virus (WEEV) is an arboviral pathogen naturally found in North America. The primary disease phenotype associated with WEEV infection in susceptible hosts is a relatively long prodromal period followed by viral encephalitis. By contrast, in the current work, experimental inoculation of WEEV into the peritoneum of Syrian golden hamsters produced rapid death within approximately 96 h. It was determined that direct virus killing of lymphoid cells leads to death in WEEV-infected Syrian golden hamsters, and that inflammatory cytokines have the potential to enhance virus-induced lymphoid cell destruction. It was further concluded that WEEV retains its ability to cause encephalitis in Syrian golden hamsters, if hamsters survive the early stages of virus infection or if virus is introduced directly into the CNS.
Death in WEEV-infected hamsters is associated with lymphonecrotic lesions in the absence of pathological lesions in the central nervous system (CNS). Few clinical parameters were altered by WEEV infection, with the exception of circulating lymphocyte numbers. Circulating lymphocyte numbers decreased dramatically during WEEV infection, and lymphopenia was identified as a consistent indicator of eventual death. Virus infection also increased serum concentrations of the cytokines interferon and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha).
Hamster peritoneal macrophages exposed to WEEV expressed TNF-alpha in a dose-responsive manner. Macrophage expression of TNF-alpha could be significantly inhibited by treatment of cells with anti-inflammatory agents flunixin meglumine (FM) or dexamethasone (Dex). Anti-inflammatory treatment also protected macrophages from cytotoxicity associated with exposure to WEEV. Treatment of WEEV-infected hamsters with either FM or Dex significantly improved survival compared to placebo-treated controls. WEEV induced cytotoxicity in hamster splenocytes exposed to WEEV in a virus dose-responsive manner. Supernatant from WEEV-exposed macrophages significantly enhanced WEEV killing of splenocytes. Hamsters that survived the early stages of WEEV infection occasionally developed signs of neurological disease and died approximately 6 to 9 d after virus inoculation. These animals had histopathological lesions in the CNS consistent with alphavirus-induced encephalitis. Inoculation of WEEV directly into the CNS caused apparent encephalitic disease. Death following CNS inoculation of WEEV was rapid and concurrent with histopathological lesions in the CNS similar to lesions seen in encephalitic hamsters following peripheral inoculation.
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