Routine use of steroids harmful in cryptococcal meningitis

Adjunctive Dexamethasone in HIV-Associated Cryptococcal Meningitis.

Beardsley J, Wolbers M, Kibengo FM, Ggayi AB, Kamali A, Cuc NT, Binh TQ, Chau NV, Farrar J, Merson L, Phuong L, Thwaites G, Van Kinh N, Thuy PT, Chierakul W, Siriboon S, Thiansukhon E, Onsanit S, Supphamongkholchaikul W, Chan AK, Heyderman R, Mwinjiwa E, van Oosterhout JJ, Imran D, Basri H, Mayxay M, Dance D, Phimmasone P, Rattanavong S, Lalloo DG, Day JN, CryptoDex Investigations. N Engl J Med. 2016 Feb 11;374(6):542-54. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1509024.

Background: Cryptococcal meningitis associated with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection causes more than 600 000 deaths each year worldwide. Treatment has changed little in 20 years, and there are no imminent new anticryptococcal agents. The use of adjuvant glucocorticoids reduces mortality among patients with other forms of meningitis in some populations, but their use is untested in patients with cryptococcal meningitis.

Methods: In this double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, we recruited adult patients with HIV-associated cryptococcal meningitis in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Uganda, and Malawi. All the patients received either dexamethasone or placebo for 6 weeks, along with combination antifungal therapy with amphotericin B and fluconazole.

Results: The trial was stopped for safety reasons after the enrollment of 451 patients. Mortality was 47% in the dexamethasone group and 41% in the placebo group by 10 weeks (hazard ratio in the dexamethasone group, 1.11; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.84 to 1.47; P=0.45) and 57% and 49%, respectively, by 6 months (hazard ratio, 1.18; 95% CI, 0.91 to 1.53; P=0.20). The percentage of patients with disability at 10 weeks was higher in the dexamethasone group than in the placebo group, with 13% versus 25% having a prespecified good outcome (odds ratio, 0.42; 95% CI, 0.25 to 0.69; P<0.001). Clinical adverse events were more common in the dexamethasone group than in the placebo group (667 vs. 494 events, P=0.01), with more patients in the dexamethasone group having grade 3 or 4 infection (48 vs. 25 patients, P=0.003), renal events (22 vs. 7, P=0.004), and cardiac events (8 vs. 0, P=0.004). Fungal clearance in cerebrospinal fluid was slower in the dexamethasone group. Results were consistent across Asian and African sites.

Conclusions: Dexamethasone did not reduce mortality among patients with HIV-associated cryptococcal meningitis and was associated with more adverse events and disability than was placebo.

Abstract [1]  Full-text [free] access  [2]

Editor’s notes: Outcomes from cryptococcal meningitis in people living with HIV are very poor. This was highlighted here. Three out of five people overall had died or were severely disabled ten weeks after enrolment. This clinical trial provides strong evidence that steroids cause more harm than good and therefore routine use should not be recommended. Dexamethasone was not only associated with higher risk of death or disability but also with higher risk of significant adverse events, particularly bacterial sepsis.

The majority of deaths occurred early, in the first three weeks. Most participants were ART naïve and severely immunosuppressed (CD4+ cell count <50 cells/µL) and most deaths look to have occurred prior to the scheduled start of antiretroviral therapy. This may also partly explain the low frequency of immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome (IRIS) and the lack of any observed benefit of dexamethasone in reducing IRIS.

Although dexamethasone was associated with greater decline in intracranial pressure, this did not translate into improved neurological outcomes. All participants had regular lumbar punctures for pressure monitoring. This might have limited the potential to observe a benefit from dexamethasone. Some explanation for the adverse outcomes might come from the impaired fungal clearance in cerebrospinal fluid – a marker of poor outcomes in previous studies. It should be noted that antifungal treatment in this trial was suboptimal. The combination of amphotericin and flucytosine was not used, despite evidence of improved outcomes and more rapid fungal clearance with this regimen.

While the search should go on for better treatment strategies, the findings in this study emphasise the importance of prevention, focused firmly, on earlier HIV diagnosis and treatment.  

Comorbidity [4], HIV Treatment [5]
Africa [6], Asia [7], Europe [8], Latin America [9], Northern America [10]
Indonesia [11], Laos [12], Malawi [13], Thailand [14], Uganda [15], Viet Nam [16]
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